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The cobbled classics are over and it’s now time for so-called ‘Ardennes Week’, a collection of races in and around the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium. The first of those races, the Amstel Gold Race, isn’t actually in Belgium at all — it’s over the border in the Netherlands and is the only Dutch one-day race on the WorldTour calendar.
Here’s what you need to know before tuning into Sunday’s 52nd edition of the Amstel Gold Race.
The course comprises four laps around Valkenburg, lots of climbs, and lots of road furniture.
The Amstel Gold Race starts in Maastricht, the capital of the Dutch province of Limburg. Limburg sits right at the southern tip of the Netherlands with Belgium to its west and Germany to the east (the race ducks into Germany briefly). Unlike the rest of the Netherlands, which is famed for its pancake-flat terrain, Limburg is rather hilly.
In all, the race is 261km long and comprises four distinct circuit. The first heads north then east from Maastricht, before looping around to Valkenburg (the site of the 2012 Road World Championships). The remaining three laps start and finish in Valkenburg with each lap shorter than the last.
Unlike at the Tour of Flanders, where the first 100km are relatively easy and the climbs are concentrated in the last 150km, the climbs of Amstel Gold Race are more evenly spread throughout the race. Admittedly, the climbs aren’t generally as long or as hard as at Flanders, but with no fewer than 35 ascents on the menu, the race is far from easy.
The Cauberg is no longer the final climb of the race.
Ever since 2003, the Cauberg climb in Valkenburg (900 metres at 7.5%) has been the final challenge of the Amstel Gold Race and the ascent that has defined it. From 2003 to 2012 the race ended at the top of the climb; from 2013 to 2016, the finish was placed 1.8km past the top of the Cauberg, mirroring the finish of the 2012 Road World Championships.
In 2017, the race will finish in the same place as the past few years, but the final ascent of the Cauberg will be skipped. Why? Race organisers (and many fans) thought the race had become to predictable, too often decided on the Cauberg. Speaking about the change, course director Leo van Vliet said: “By deleting the last climb of the Cauberg from our race we hope to create a more open race, which leads to more potential winners and the attacking riders will have more change.”
The Cauberg isn’t gone from the race entirely. Instead of four ascents, there will now be three. The final of those ascents is the third-to-last climb of the day, roughly 16km from the finish. Then it’s on to the Geulhemmerberg — 1km at 6.2%; 10km from the finish — and, finally, the Bemelerberg — 900 metres at 4.6%; 5.5km from the finish.
From the top of the final climb there’s a bit of a false-flat and then a gentle 2km downhill run to the line.
Removing the Cauberg could completely change the complexion of the race.
In one sense it’s a shame to see the final ascent of the Cauberg gone. It was always thrilling to see who was strongest up there, and whether they could hold an advantage to the line. On the other hand, it did make the race quite predictable, with most teams riding for a showdown on the Cauberg. With that final ascent now gone, the race should theoretically open up considerably.
The last two climbs of the race aren’t nearly as hard as the Cauberg, and therefore not as selective. And being a little further from the line also makes them less of a natural springboard for the puncheurs in the race. Of course, there will be riders that try to get away on these final climbs and it should make for exciting racing. Whether anyone’s able to get a gap on these ascents and hold on to the end remains to be seen.
The most likely outcome seems to be a sprint from a thinned-out bunch, perhaps of between 20-40 riders. Or maybe it will be a select group of just a handful that can get clear on those final ascents — a la this year’s Milan-San Remo — before going on to contest what is likely to be a fast sprint. Then again, maybe a long-range move will stick? With the new finish, there’s no real way to tell, and that’s an exciting prospect.
The list of favourites for Sunday’s race is longer than it was for Flanders and Roubaix.
For the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix there were only a handful of five-star favourites. As it turned out, the winner of each race came from within the list of favouites. For the Amstel Gold Race, there seem to be many more riders that have a good shot at victory. This is due in no small part to the removal of the Cauberg, and the small-group sprint that seems a decent chance to occur.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has been on the list of favourites for every race he’s started this spring and he’s won a whole bunch of them. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix — it’s a fair collection. He will start Amstel Gold Race as one of the big favourites again.
Van Avermaet has shown time after time that he’s an imposing force on short climbs and in small-group sprints — both of which put him in good stead for Sunday. Barring a mechanical or other mishap, it’s hard to see Van Avermaet not being there if the race ends in a small elite group. And if he is there, he’ll be hard to beat in the sprint that follows.
There’s no doubt about Van Avermaet’s form — he’s the strongest he’s ever been — but there might be slight question about his fatigue levels. Will he be feeling the effects of a couple months of long, hard races?
While Van Avermaet has been starring in the cobbled classics, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been dominating the early season stage races. With overall victories (and more than a few stage wins) at the Ruta del Sol, the Volta a Catalunya and the Volta al Pais Vasco, it’s no wonder Valverde has described the past few months as his best-ever start to a season.
With four wins at Fleche Wallonne and three at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Valverde has been a force of nature at the Ardennes Classics in recent years. He hasn’t performed as well at Amstel Gold Race, but he’s still got two second places, a third, a fourth and a sixth – still very impressive.
Valverde will be hoping for a super-hard race that’s torn apart on the last few climbs. He’d probably rather the Cauberg was still in the race, but given the form he’s in, his performance in such races in the past, and his sprinting prowess at the end of long, hard races, Valverde is definitely still a big favourite.
Speaking of riders who have dominated the Ardennes in recent years, Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep-Floors) is very much deserving of favourite status as well. Like Valverde, Gilbert would almost certainly rather the Cauberg was still in the race — after all, he’s won the Amstel Gold Race three times already (second on the all-time list, behind Dutchman Jan Ras who won five), using the Cauberg to great effect in doing so. He also won the 2012 Road World Championships with an attack on the Cauberg.
Like Valverde, Gilbert will be hoping for a very hard finale and a select group at the end, hopefully without Valverde and other super-fast finishers. Of course, given the form he’s in, he could also just do what he did at Flanders: ride away on his own to take a long-range solo win. That possibility certainly shouldn’t be discounted.
While QuickStep Floors will be without Julian Alaphillipe this Sunday (and indeed for all the Ardennes Classics), it’s also worth keeping Dan Martin in mind. The Irishman is a proven performer at the Ardennes and will be a more-than-handy option for his team should things fall that way.
Given his form in the early Spring Classics, it was something of a surprise to see Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) skip the Tour of Flanders. But the former world champion was focused on the Ardennes, including Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. It’s a race he’s won before — he won the sprint from a group of 15 in 2015 (see video below) — and the removal of the Cauberg shouldn’t worry him too much.
The Pole is more than capable of staying with an elite selection over the final climbs and is one of the best in the world at sprinting at the end of long, hard races (see his Milan-San Remo win last month). He’s also able to go solo if he sees that as his best chance of victory (see his wins at the 2014 Road World Championships and the recent Strade Bianche.)
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) might normally fall into the category of outsiders for this sort of race, but given his recent form he certainly deserves to be among the big favourites. He took a tenacious victory at Paris-Nice last month in horrid conditions, and then, crucially, won the Ardennes lead-up race of Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday.
Like the Amstel Gold Race, Brabantse Pijl features plenty of short climbs, and has a tough little uphill finish. Colbrelli made it up and over all the climbs before taking a compelling victory in the uphill sprint. Granted, the field will be stronger at Amstel Gold Race, but if it does come to a reduced bunch sprint and Colbrelli can be there, he’ll certainly take some beating. After all, he did win the bunch kick to take third last year.
Perhaps the last of the big favourites is a man who’s long been searching for victory at Amstel Gold Race but hasn’t quite got there. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) was third in 2015 when he and then-teammate Simon Gerrans showed a distinct lack of teamwork on the Cauberg. Now that he’s with Sunweb, he’ll likely have better support and, perhaps, a greater shot at victory.
While Matthews is in his element on short and sharp climbs, the removal of the Cauberg shouldn’t faze him too much. He shouldn’t have any trouble being there if the race does indeed come down to a reduced bunch sprint. It might just be a question of whether he’s able to get his positioning right and how many other fast-finishers are left in the group.
There is great depth in the startlist and nearly every team has a potential winner.
Orica-Scott may have lost Michael Matthews but in previous winner Roman Kreuziger and three-time third-place-getter Simon Gerrans, they’ve got no shortage of options. Indeed, with the likes of Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini also in the mix — both fast finishers in hilly races — they’ve got plenty of cards to play.
Tim Wellens will start Amstel Gold as Lotto Soudal’s main man and it would be a safe bet to suggest that we’ll see him attacking at some point. He was on the move at Brabantse Pijl yesterday, he attacked in last year’s edition of the Amstel Gold Race, he’s already won three races this year, and if a late solo move is going to win the day, Wellens could well be the man to pull it off.
Enrico Gasparotto was arguably a surprise winner both times he took out the Amstel Gold Race (2012 and 2016) and with the removal of the Cauberg, a third victory is perhaps even less likely for the Bahrain Merida recruit. Still, he’s an incredibly dangerous rider on this day, and could be in the mix if things fall his way.
Dimension Data and Bora-hansgrohe both have a potential Australian challenger in Nathan Haas and Jay McCarthy respectively. Both climb very well, both have a fast finish in a reduced bunch, and both could be in with a chance if the race breaks in their favour.
Ag2r-La Mondiale has two options in Romain Bardet and Oliver Naesen. And finally, it’s worth keeping a close eye on UAE Team Emirates, an outfit with three compelling prospects for Sunday’s race.
Rui Costa was fourth in 2015, he loves the lumpy terrain, and has started the year in great fashion (he won a stage and the overall at the Abu Dhabi Tour, and a stage of the Vuelta a San Juan). Diego Ulissi is a specialist when it comes to sprints after tough finales, and Ben Swift has shown at Milan-San Remo in recent years that he’s got a great kick at the end of long, hard races.
The weather is looking a little ordinary.
At the time of writing, the weather forecast suggests a top of 10ºC and showers for Sunday. There’s also likely to be a bit of wind around, which might tempt some of the stronger teams to split things up in the crosswind.
The race is being broadcast live around the world.
If you’re keen to watch the race in Australia, you’ll be able to catch it live on SBS Viceland and streaming on the SBS Cycling Central website from 10:20pm AEST. It will also be on Eurosport (Foxtel channel 511) from 10:45pm.
For local coverage options in your region as well as live streaming opportunities, be sure to check your local guides or steephill.tv. You can follow the race live on Twitter using the hashtag #AmstelGoldRace.
Who’s your pick for the 2017 Amstel Gold Race? And how do you think the race will be decided now that the final ascent of the Cauberg is gone?