Great Dane! Valgren takes Amstel Gold Race after late attack

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Danish rider Michael Valgren (Astana) took a two-rider sprint to win the 53rd edition of the Amstel Gold Race Sunday in Valkenberg, beating out former Amstel winners Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), and Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida).

World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) won a small bunch sprint for fourth just ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

It was the second big win of the spring classics season for the 26-year-old Valgren, who also won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 24, and a bit of redemption after finishing second to Gasparotto from a two-man sprint in 2016.

“It is kind of my thing now,” said Valgren, when reminded that his victory from earlier this year also came in a late move. “It worked in Nieuwsblad, I did the same in the Tour of Flanders with Gilbert, and also today. I think if you don’t try, you don’t win. I would never beat them [Sagan, Valverde and others] in a sprint. I have a decent sprint, but I would never win. So I had everything to win and nothing to lose, because I was second here once. I wasn’t riding for second again.

“I had to attack, but I had a really good help from Jakob [Fuglsang], who was setting up the pace and making the other guys tired. I can thank him and the rest of the team a lot for this victory.”

The race is always a whittling down process and a select group went clear over the top of the Bemelerberg, five kilometres from the line. Valgren, Kreuziger and Gasparotto were there, as were Sagan, Valverde, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors). Valgren tried with four kilometres left but was hauled back; he went again two kilometres later, and was joined by first Kreuziger and then Gasparotto.

Valgren was then quickest in the gallop to the line, with Kreuziger next home.

Gasparotto said he sees the race as one which suits him a lot. “In spite of the change the organiser did this year, I could manage to arrive there with Roman,” he said. “We could attack quite earlier, and we could achieve a good podium spot.

“We didn’t win, myself and Roman, but we know already what is the feeling of winning here. It is also time for the younger guys.”

The Italian is now 36 years of age. Kreuziger is five years younger, and light-heartedly pointed this out. “I don’t think I am really old, as I am just 31,” he smiled. “So maybe he is getting old, but I am still young. I hope to come still many times because Amstel is one of my favourite races. I really like it. Of course it is pity not to win, but hats off to Valgren, who was very strong. He didn’t show himself much in the race, but in the final he was there.

“He is a super mate of Fuglsang, who helped him a lot. They could play, because there were two there.

As for fourth-place finisher Sagan, he appeared at times to be almost effortless. However he found himself outmanoeuvred as the chess match played out in the finale. “In the final 20km there was a split and a selection in the group and I was right there in the front,” he said. “I had good sensations but I think that last week’s Paris-Roubaix could still be felt in my legs. Nevertheless, I finished fourth and, in my view, the overall assessment of my Classics campaign is good.”

Nine-man breakaway opens 15-minute lead

Warm weather, overcast skies, and calm winds greeted the peloton at the start in Maastricht, welcome conditions for what is known as one of the most nervous and stressful one-day races on the calendar. On the day’s menu, a twisting and turning 263km route — and 35 short, punchy climbs — from Maastricht to Valkenburg, a course which originated as a tour of the Limburg region’s many Amstel breweries.

The Cauberg, the climb that has come to define this race, would feature three times, with the final ascent coming much further out, at 18km to go, than in years past. Instead, the Geulhemmerberg (1km at 6.2%) and Bemelerberg (900m at 4.6%) were the two final pitches before the finish, with the Bemelerberg coming at 6.9km from the line. It was on the Bemelerberg where Philippe Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski went clear in 2017 and went on to contest the finale together.

Also, rather than sending the peloton down wide paved roads in the final 16km, organisers opted for much narrower stretches of asphalt, with technical descents, making the final kilometres a battle for position as well as a battle on the climbs.

The bunch passes the Sint Hubertus Mill in Beel at the 53rd Amstel Gold Race.

A moment of silence was observed at the start in memory of Belgian Michael Goolaerts, the Veranda’s Willems-Crelan rider who died after suffering cardiac arrest at Paris-Roubaix one week earlier.

There were five former winners in the bunch: Gilbert, a four-time winner (2010-11, 2014, and 2017); Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida), winner in 2012 and 2016; Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), winner in 2015 and second last year; Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), winner in 2013; and Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini), winner in 2008.

Also on the start line was Valverde (Movistar), a five-time winner of Flèche Wallonne and four-time winner at Liège-Bastogne-Liège without an Amstel Gold Race victory in his palmares.

The past two winners of Paris-Roubaix were also on the start line, Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). Sagan’s best result was third in 2012, while Van Avermaet was fifth in 2015.

Nine riders made up the daylong breakaway: Eddie Dunbar (Aqua Blue Sport), Bram Tankink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac), Tsgabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo), Marco Tizza (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Oscar Riesebeek (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Matteo Bono (UAE Team Emirates), and Willem Smit (Katusha-Alpecin).

Nine riders made up the daylong breakaway, initiated by Irish rider Eddie Dunbar, which opened a massive lead of 15 minutes before the peloton woke up and brought it down under a more manageable 8:30 with 100km to go.

In the breakaway: Dunbar (Aqua Blue Sport), Bram Tankink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac), Tsgabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo), Marco Tizza (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Oscar Riesebeek (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Matteo Bono (UAE Team Emirates), and Willem Smit (Katusha-Alpecin).

At 90km to go, the breakaway’s lead had come down to 7:30, with Movistar, Bora-Hansgrohe, and Quick-Step Floors driving the chase. By 60km to go, with the breakaway riders fatiguing and the bunch bracing for the finale, the gap was down to 4:30.

Movistar on the front at the 2018 Amstel Gold Race.

Two former winners on the attack

The race began in earnest with around 50km to go, as team leaders and superdomestiques began jockeying for position at the front of the bunch. With 40km to go, the breakaway’s lead was down to 2:30, though all nine riders were still together at the front. Seven “bergs” remained — Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg, Keutenberg, Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg, and Bemelerberg.

A crash in a left-hand turn at the foot of the Kruisberg saw Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) on the ground alongside Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe). Kwiatkowski rode near the front of the bunch over the Kruisberg, with Van Avermaet and Sagan also positioned well. Over the Eyserbosweg it was Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) pushing the pace as the riders of the breakaway began to be swept up by a peloton of about 45 riders.

Onto the Fromberg (1600m at 3.6%) the race blew to bits. Mikel Landa (Movistar) went to the front and set a hard pace, stringing out the group single file. Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain-Merida) countered over the top of the Fromberg and into the Keutenberg — the steepest climb in the Netherlands — as seven riders at the front nursed a 1:25 lead.

Sagan, Alaphilippe, and Valverde all rode at the front of the main bunch throughout the day and made the final selection, though none would reach the podium.

As Izaguirre was pulled back on the Keutenberg, next to attack from the peloton was Sagan, and though that was short-lived, Sagan’s move instigated a counter from Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). When Fuglsang was brought back, two former winners — Gasparotto and Kreuziger — jumped away.

Three climbs over 25km remained — Cauberg (18.3km to go), Geulhemmerberg (13.7km to go), and Bemelerberg (6.9km to go) — as the remnants of the breakaway held a 55-second lead over the main bunch, and 38 seconds over Gasparotto and Kreuziger.

Chasing at the head of the main bunch was Pieter Serry (Quick-Step Floors).

Onto the Cauberg, six of the nine breakaway riders remained at the front — Bono, Craddock, Dunbar, Grmay, Riesebeek and Van Hecke — 25 seconds ahead of Gasparotto and Kreuziger and 45 seconds ahead of the reduced peloton. Behind, Michael Matthews (Sunweb), third in the 2015 Amstel Gold Race, had a rear puncture and lost contact with the group containing Valverde, Landa, Fuglsang, Kwiatkowski, Gilbert, Jungels, and several others.

Gasparotto and Kreuziger caught the breakaway group in front of large crowds on the Cauberg with 17km to go. From the bunch, Bert-Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo) unleashed an attack. Once that move was reeled in, Alaphilippe jumped, though without opening a gap.

Over the top of the Cauberg, Van Avermaet jumped out of the group, followed by Rudy Molard (Groupama–FDJ), opening a five-second lead ahead of the bunch across the line with 15km to go; ahead, Gasparotto, Kreuziger, Craddock, Riesebeek, and Bono held a 10-second lead.

Next up was the Geulhemmerberg, where Van Avermaet and Molard were caught and a selection was made. Valverde attacked, drawing out Sagan and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and putting Gilbert into difficulty. Wellens could not hold the pace as Alaphilippe jumped onto Valverde’s wheel, followed by Sagan and Valgren (Astana). A bit of regrouping took place as the chasers caught the breakaway, allowing Wellens and Fuglsang back on.

The final 10km

With 10km to go, the lead group of 12 riders — including Valverde, Alaphilippe, Sagan, Wellens, Gasparotto, Craddock, Riesebeek, and Bono — held a 19-second lead over a group of chasers.

Three riders slipped off the front — Fuglsang, Riesebeek, and Bono — opening a slight lead, with Kreuziger leading the chase. Twenty-two seconds behind, Kreuziger’s teammate Daryl Impey rode in the second group.

Fuglsang went clear on the Bemelerberg, with Valverde closing it down, and Sagan on the Spaniard’s wheel.

Over the top of the Bemelerberg a group went clear with 5km remaining — Fuglsang, Valverde, Sagan, Alaphilippe, Gasparotto, Kreuziger, Wellens and Valgren.

After the race, Valgren accepted a media assessment that patience had been crucial.

“Actually that was the tactic of today,” Valgren said. “I had to wait, wait, wait. I was talking to Jakob [Fuglsang] before the last time up the Cauberg, and he said, ‘how do we do this?’ I said ‘I am going to wait, wait, wait until the Bemelerberg because I think there was a bit too much headwind after the second-last time.’ Even though Valverde did a super – good attack there and put everybody in the hurt box.

“Then I made my first attack [with 4km to go]. I was actually thinking it was a really good one, but Tim Wellens closed me down. I had to try one more time [with 2km left], and I succeeded. I was also lucky, I think – they started to look at each other.”

Valgren’s attack drew out exactly one rider — Kreuziger. Behind, Sagan looked around for others to chase, with Gasparotto bridging across alone to the leaders. Wellens saw danger and tried to get clear, but Valverde went after him and things closed down in the group.

The stop-start racing behind helped the leaders and as the gap opened, it became clear the winner would come from the three men at the front.

Kreuziger then opened up the sprint. But in the end, as Gasparotto faded, Valgren proved strongest.

Kreuziger could have been disappointed, but he saw the silver lining. He pointed out that it was his first race since Paris-Nice. He also accepted his limitations, and assessed his second place in light of that.

“If I would sprint with Gaspa, Sagan, Valverde, Alaphilippe, I would probably finish fifth or sixth,” he said. “That was not our goal. We wanted to be in the front and show our jersey and do our race. I think we did in the best way we could.

“I am happy with the second place. Of course it is a pity to lose a big Classic like Amstel, and I would like to win it again, but if you think about the group and how normally I can sprint, then it is a big victory today.”

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