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by Matt de Neef
April 12, 2018
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Jered & Ashley Gruber & Cor Vos
With the cobbled classics now complete, the cycling world turns its attention to the so-called “Ardennes Classics”. The first of the three “Ardennes”, the Amstel Gold Race, isn’t actually held in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg — rather it’s raced over the border in The Netherlands.
Ahead of Sunday’s 53rd edition of the Netherlands’ only one-day WorldTour race, we take a look at the course, the climbs and the contenders to get you up to speed.
As ever, the 2018 Amstel Gold Race starts in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands’ southernmost province of Limburg. Sandwiched between Belgium to the west and Germany to the east, Limburg is a region full of hills, quite unlike the rest of the low-lying nation.
From Maastricht, the race will play out over 263km, comprising four different circuits that are centred around Valkenburg, the home of the 2012 Road World Championships. The roads are narrow and full of road furniture, and the climbs, while short, come frequently as the riders snake their way around the Dutch countryside.
The route is more or less identical to last year, albeit for a change to the fourth and final circuit of 16km. As we’ll discuss below, this change could have a significant impact on the race, as the riders tackle the final few climbs and make their way to the finish in Berg en Terblijt.
In all, the riders will tackle 35 climbs on Sunday. Some appear only once, some appear multiple times. Most are short (up to a few kilometres in length) and not terribly steep, but it’s the cumulative fatigue from so many climbs that makes this race tough.
Until last year there was one climb that was synonymous with the Amstel Gold Race and particularly with the final kilometres: the Cauberg. This climb would almost always decide the race in the final kilometres, leading to somewhat negative racing as riders waited for one hard effort up the 900m, 7.5% ascent.
For 2017, race organisers removed the Cauberg as the final climb of the day, hoping to create a more interesting, more unpredictable race. It worked — although Philippe Gilbert still won — and in 2018, the Cauberg is again no longer the final climb of the day.
It does still appear three times — climbs #6, #24 and #33 — the last of which is the third-to-last climb of the day. It comes at 18.3km to go and is followed by the Geulhemmerberg at 13.7km to go (1km at 6.2%) and finally the Bemelerberg (900m at 4.6%), 6.9km from the finish.
Amstel Gold Race is famous for its frequent climbs and narrow roads, both of which often come together.
As noted above, race organisers have made a significant change to the final circuit for the 2018 edition. Rather than sending the peloton down wide roads in the final 16km, organisers have opted for much narrower roads, making the final kilometres a battle for position as well as a battle on the climbs.
“With this change in the final of the Amstel Gold Race we search for more narrow roads to make it harder to control the race for the bunch,” said course director Leo van Vliet. “In 2017 we saw that a simple change in the route led to a more attractive race. With this new change the contenders for the victory have to find a good position before they enter the final or already left the bunch for an attack.”
When race organisers moved the Cauberg away from the final few kilometres of the Amstel Gold Race, the opened up the contest significantly. No longer was it a case of waiting to the Cauberg and seeing who had the legs to blow everyone away. With the finish now about 7km from the top of the final climb — the easier Bemerlerberg — there’s a different dynamic in the closing kilometres.
In last year’s Amstel Gold, two riders — Philippe Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski — got away on the final climb and went on to contest the finish together. It would be little surprise to see a small group get away on the Bemelerberg again in 2018 — there’ll almost certainly be attempts to do so.
The other likely situation is a sprint from a reduced peloton. If this does come to fruition, the changes to the course could play a role. The narrow roads in the final 16km mean position will be crucial if there’s a group of any significant size there. The roads do get wider in the final 1.2km but riders won’t want to leave it until then to start getting into position — it might well be too late by that point, if the group is big enough.
Regardless of how the race is decided, it will likely be the same sorts of riders that are there with a chance: fast-finishers with good climbing ability. It’s not insignificant that the two riders vying for the win in last year’s edition — Gilbert and Kwiatkowski — both have good sprints and both climb well. Putting it another way, the final might have changed last year, but the sort of rider it suits probably hasn’t.
Of course, there’s always the chance of a late solo move from a rider who doesn’t back themselves in the sprint …
Here are some of the riders you’ll want to watch out for on Sunday:
Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors)
‘PhilGil’ is a four-time winner of the Amstel Gold Race and, crucially, the defending champion. He showed last year that he doesn’t need the Cauberg finish to win the race and would not be a surprise winner on Sunday. If he does win, he’ll join Jan Raas at the top of the winners’ list with a record-equalling five wins.
Gilbert has had a number of impressive results so far this spring — fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, second at E3 Harelbeke, and third at the Tour of Flanders — and it’s not hard to see him getting his first win of the season at Amstel. The Belgian can either win solo or by relying on his fast finish from a small group.
Gilbert won his fourth Amstel Gold Race last year.
Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors)
As ever at the Spring Classics, QuickStep Floors has multiple strong options. In this case it’s Julian Alaphilippe that’ll be the Belgian squad’s #2, and a great #2 he is too.
The aggressive Frenchman has been in great form so far this year, winning a stage at the Colombia Oro y Paz then two stages at the recent Itzulia Basque Country. He’s a rider that’s done well at the Ardennes Classics in the past and is a dangerous option for Sunday’s race.
Like Gilbert, Alaphilippe is capable of both getting away on his own and winning from a small group.
Peter Sagan and Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe)
It’s not hard to imagine some of Sagan’s rivals groaning when they realised he was on the startlist for the Amstel Gold Race. The world champion has avoided the Ardennes Classics in recent years — in fact, the last time he ventured to this race was 2013.
On paper Amstel is a great race for Sagan (then again the same could be said for most races on the calendar). He’s one of the best climbers among the fast-finishers, he’s one of the strongest sprinters in the world and he loves getting away on his own if he feels that’s his best chance of winning. Add to that the fact he’s in stellar form — his long-range move at Paris-Roubaix last weekend was quite a performance.
Expect to see Sagan at the pointy end of Sunday’s race, and don’t be surprised if he wins it.
Peter Sagan won last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix from a two-up sprint.
If Sagan isn’t there to contest the finish, for whatever reason, keep an eye on Jay McCarthy. The 25-year-old Australian is getting better and better each season, and packs an impressive sprint at the end of hard and hilly races. Case in point: McCarthy won a stage at the recent Itzulia Basque Country, outsprinting Michael Albasini, Alaphilippe, Michael Matthews and others in the process.
Tim Wellens & Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal)
Wellens would already have been among the riders to watch before his win at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday, but now he should be considered a genuine contender. The talented Belgian attacked with 7.5km to go and held on for an impressive solo win — a classic Wellensesque performance.
Wellens is the sort of rider that needs to go it alone to have a chance of winning and he seems to be in the form to do so. Watch for him to attack on one of the final climbs.
Wellens won solo at Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl.
The same can be said for Wellens’ teammate Tiesj Benoot. Benoot was third at Brabantse Pijl and has shown terrific form throughout the classics, with top 10s at E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders. Of course he also won Strade Bianche with a storming ride that truly announced him as a genuine classics contender.
Michael Albasini (Mitchelton-Scott)
The Swiss veteran has been pretty quiet in the lead-up to the Ardennes, but don’t write him off — he’s a proven performer at this time of year and is well capable of a good result.
Albasini was third last year, winning the sprint from the chase group. Look for him to follow the moves in the closing kilometres on Sunday before using his strong sprint to fight for a good result.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Valverde has been the rider of the Ardennes Classics in recent years, amassing a ridiculous four wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and five at Fleche Wallonne (including the past four). Remarkably though, Valverde has never won Amstel Gold — a notable gap in his expansive palmares that he’d very much like to fill.
He’s got the form to do it (is he ever out of form?) — this year he’s already won two stages and the overall at the Volta a la Valenciana, the Abu Dhabi Tour, two stages and the overall at the Volta Catalunya, and the GP Miguel Indurain.
Alejandro Valverde, king of the Ardennes Classics.
The removal of the Cauberg probably doesn’t suit the 37-year-old all that well, but it would be folly to write him off. If he can get into a small group towards the end, his sprint will give him a great shot.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky)
Kwiato has done very well at Amstel in the past, winning the race from a reduced bunch sprint in 2015 and coming second from the winning group of two last year. He’s shown some great form this year, winning the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta ao Algarve, and while he hasn’t been at his best in the classics, he’ll still be a formidable challenger come Sunday.
As his previous results have shown, he’s capable of winning a reduced bunch kick but can also get away late. Look for him on the final climbs.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
Van Avermaet tends to perform better at the Cobbled Classics than the Ardennes, but then again, he was fifth at Amstel Gold in 2015. He’s one of the world’s best sprinters at the end of long, hard, one-day races, but it’s also well within his range to go it alone if he chooses. Dangerous.
Van Avermaet after finishing Paris-Roubaix last Sunday.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb)
It hasn’t been a great season so far for the man they call ‘Bling’. He hasn’t snagged a win as yet — but having said that, he has only done 10 race days so far in 2018.
Amstel is a race that Matthews has always fancied his chances at, and his results show that’s not without reason. He was 10th last year, fifth in 2016 and third in 2015. The Australian will be hoping for a reduced bunch sprint and that he can get around the likes of Sagan and Van Avermaet if that’s the way it plays out.
Sonny Colbrelli and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Colbrelli appears to be coming into some good form, having finished second at Brabantse Pijl as defending champion on Wednesday (he won the sprint from the chase group behind Wellens). He’s performed well at Amstel in the past — he was ninth last year and third in 2016 — and, like Matthews, will probably be aiming for a reduced bunch sprint.
Nibali is expected to race on Sunday but that may be in some doubt thanks to a saddle sore which saw him withdraw from the Itzulia Basque Country. If he does race, look for the Milan-San Remo winner to go on the move on the closing climbs (or maybe on a descent). His best chance of victory is to arrive at the finish on his own, something he’s well capable of doing.
Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin)
The Ardennes Classics are always a big target for Haas and last year he registered his most impressive result yet, finishing fourth at the Amstel Gold Race (in an elite chase group behind Gilbert and Kwiatkowski). Haas has a strong sprint from a small group (he beat Van Avermaet to win a stage of the Tour of Oman earlier this year) but he’s also got a willingness to go on the attack if he deems that his best chance of victory. One to watch.
Haas after finishing fourth last year.
Beyond the contenders are many riders with an outside shot of victory; the riders that, should things fall their way, could post a good result or perhaps even win the race. Here’s a selection:
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo): More at home in the cobbled classics and hasn’t really been at his best since his serious finger injury in January 2016, but Degenkolb has a great sprint from a small group.
Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale): Has had good form this year, winning a stage and the overall at Etoile de Besseges. Loves to attack late, and does so with aplomb.
Michael Valgren (Astana): Finished second in 2016, was fourth at the Tour of Flanders last week, and won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. A cunning rider who frequently times his late attacks very well.
Valgren winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this year.
Omar Fraile (Astana): Won a stage of Itzulia Basque Country recently from a group of six. Has a fast finish and loves getting out front on his own. Dangerous.
The weather is looking fine for Sunday: 16ºC and overcast, but with no rain forecast. Perfect conditions for bike racing.
Fans in Australia can catch live coverage of the men’s Amstel Gold Race on SBS Viceland and streaming via the Cycling Central website from 10:30pm AEST. Viewers in the US can catch the livestream via Fubo (subscription required, but a seven-day free trial is available). Eurosport has coverage in UK and Europe (and elsewhere) and it appears there’ll also be livestreaming available via the Amstel Gold Race website as well.
Who’s your pick for the 2018 men’s Amstel Gold Race? And how will it play out?