The Amstel Gold Race completes the seasonal transition from the cobbled classics to those of the Ardennes, but this year's race will not feature the famed Cauberg ascent before the finish, and so the race finale could look be a bit like Milan-San Remo in Dutch.
The riders must still tackle 35 of the painfully sharp hills in the region, but the final climb of the Bemelerberg comes with more than 5km to go. This opens the door for a different dynamic than we have seen in recent editions. Cyclingnews picks ten riders to watch for this new finish.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
After a lacklustre 2016 that involved over-training and repeated illnesses, the former World Champion is back to his best, with a thrilling win in Milan-San Remo testament to his new-found form. Having skipped the cobbled Classics, expectations will be high for the Pole, who has quickly become Team Sky’s best hope for the Ardennes after Wout Poels ruled himself out through injury.
Kwiatkowski won the 2015 Amstel Gold Race while in the rainbow jersey and this year’s redesigned Dutch Classic plus Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège all offer him chances of adding to his growing collection of Classics titles. His triumphs in Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche demonstrated the variety of ways in which he can win. Not a pure sprinter, Kwiatkowski will need a selective race in order to challenge. Luckily for him, he’s not the only high-profile rider who will take the same approach.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
We’ve not seen a rider take all three Ardennes races in a calendar year since Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 romp, and it’s Valverde who is the most likely to repeat the feat this year. The 36-year-old, who shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down, has won an Ardennes Classics every year since 2014, even winning both Flèche and Liège in 2005 and 2015, respectively. Amstel remains his Holy Grail, however, with two second places his best results.
Course change or not, Valverde is a major threat and has both a well-drilled team and the form required to make the top step. Taking all three races in a week might be a stretch but having seen him toy with the field at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco anything is possible.
Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb)
Unlike Valverde, Kwiatkowski and several others on this list, Matthews needs the Amstel Gold Race to finish in a bunch sprint in order for him to stand a chance of winning. The new finale certainly improves the Australian’s chances of victory, and a record of 5th, 3rd, and 12th in the last three years means the 26-year-old is worth watching.
Unlike in previous years, Matthews has none of the headaches over team leadership to worry about since the move from Orica to Sunweb, and the recent stage win in Pais Vasco will have taken the pressure off his shoulders. This is his best chance of winning a Classic this season.
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
It’s unclear as to whether Julian Alaphilippe’s injury helps or hinders Gilbert’s quest for a fourth Amstel Gold Race victory, but there’s no denying that the Belgian arrives to the Ardennes in the best form he’s displayed since the miraculous 2011 campaign, even if his form was forged on the cobbles of Flanders rather than the hills of the Basque Country.
The Quick-Step rider’s performance in the Tour of Flanders was arguably his most complete victory in what has been a glittering career and with Daniel Martin better suited to Flèche Wallonne, Gilbert will likely have full leadership at Quick-Step Floors on Sunday.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
This comes down to nothing more than motivation and the mental resolve of a rider who has been racing full gas for weeks and who has just claimed the biggest win of his career. On paper, Van Avermaet could have won on both the old course and the new Amstel Gold Race but he is another non-pure sprinter who will need a difficult and super-selective race in order to feature in the new finale.
Amstel Gold is the last race on the Paris-Roubaix winner’s spring schedule and frankly, it’s a flip of the coin as to whether he climbs off at the feed zone before jetting off for a well-earned rest or goes the distance and targets victory. His form is there but how fresh is his mind?
Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie)
With the final ascent of the Cauberg removed and the purest of sprinters not in attendance, Coquard has never had a better chance of ending France’s twenty-year wait for an Ardennes victory.
Fourth last year, beating Matthews and Alaphilippe in the sprint after the winning break had flown, the 24-year-old has peaked perfectly for this race with two stages in the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe to his name. Incredibly, Coquard has never won at WorldTour level. For a rider who wishes to be considered among the elite sprinters, that has to change.
Arthur Vichot (FDJ)
The French national champion would not be anywhere near this list 12 months ago but the route change opens the door for a sprinter who can survive the barrage of early climbs and keep enough in reserve for the pointy end of the race. Although Vichot has only picked up one sprint win this year, he’s won the Tour du Haut Var overall, and finished second overall in the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe thanks to a strong time trial. The FDJ lifer has never been a prolific winner, but given his consistency this spring and the unpredictable nature of the new route, he is another rider to watch.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida)
The Italian is similar to Matthews in that he could attain a top result on both the old and new courses. Having secured a breakthrough win on stage 2 of Paris-Nice and then taking Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl with an aggressive and strong finish, the Bahrain-Merida rider can be considered a genuine favourite for Sunday.
His results in the cobbles classics were certainly encouraging with 10th at the Tour of Flanders backed up by 13th in Gent-Wevelgem and 7th in E3 Harelbeke. Not the fastest sprinter in the pack, he relies on his stamina to make it over the climbs before latching onto superior lead-out trains. However, with Gregor Bole and possibly Giovanni Visconti to help him in the final, there’s every chance that Colbrelli can better his third place from twelve months ago.
Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain Merdia)
Riders often associate success with particular races. For Chris Froome, it’s the Tour de France and for Fabian Wegmann, it’s the GP Miguel Indurain [ed. look it up if you don’t believe us. It was one of his favourite races and he won it twice].
Gasparotto’s ties to Amstel Gold Race are something special. The Italian won the race for the first time in 2012 and four completely barren years followed before the then-Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider popped away to take last year’s race. This year the 35-year-old has reverted to type, picking up a couple of top 10s during sprints but remaining relatively anonymous. With six top-10s in Amstel, he’s a rider you can’t write off but even the keenest of Gasparotto fan club members [that too is a real thing] would see former national champion as an outsider.
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)
Lotto Soudal’s dire spring continued right to the velodrome at Paris-Roubaix and so it will be up the Belgian team’s Ardennes squad to save face in the next ten days.
Lotto Soudal is packed with quality riders and they have shown their strength in depth several times. However, it will likely be down to Tim Wellens to step up for Lotto Soudal on Sunday in the Netherlands and use his natural aggression and race reading skills to end a painful drought.
Wellens didn’t set the world on fire at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco but was third just behind Kwiatkowski at Strade Bianche and has the pedigree to win the Amstel Gold Race, having finished 10th last year in his third outing, but everyone will be a novice on the new route without the Cauberg finish.