Just 12 kilometres separate Maastricht from Valkenburg, but the Amstel Gold Race peloton takes the long road from the Markt as they travel some 248 kilometres of tortuous Limburg roads before reaching the finish over the top of the Cauberg.
Three-time winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) was, as ever, at the centre of attention at the start in Maastricht on Sunday morning, as the Belgian lined out for the first time since fracturing his finger during an altercation with a motorist last week. Gilbert cut a relaxed figure as he rolled to sign on, and he repeated his wish for a headwind over the top of the Cauberg.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) will have to find common cause with teammate Simon Gerrans in the finale if he is to prevail on Sunday afternoon. Third a year ago, the Australian is, for many, the outstanding favourite, though he was coy about his prospects on the sign on podium. “We’ll see,” Matthews smiled when asked if he was the man to beat.
Orica-GreenEdge Mathew Hayman was also on hand for his first outing since his surprise victory at Paris-Roubaix last week, and the Australian – who spent the early part of his career racing for Dutch squad Rabobank – received one of the loudest cheers of the morning when he was presented on the rostrum.
Brabantse Pijl winner Petr Vakoc lines up as part of a solid Etixx-QuickStep team that is still looking for victory in a big Classic to put a different sheen on its Spring campaign. “There aren’t many of them left to win,” Matteo Trentin smiled as he went to sign on.
“We will see how the race develops, it’ll depend on the size of the group and the wind direction, but if I see an opportunity to attack like last Wednesday in Brabantse Pijl, I’ll take it,” Vakoc said. “I didn’t hesitate then and if I see an opportunity I will try to go. My favourites? It’s definitely Michael Matthews, Philippe Gilbert, even though he’s injured, and Simon Gerrans.”
The peloton set out in dry conditions and pleasant sunshine, and though shows are possible late in the afternoon, the race ought to avoid the worst of the rain, much to the relief of Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo), who lines out alongside home favourite Bauke Mollema.
“I haven’t done the Ardennes in a long time, so we’ll have to see what we can do here,” Hesjedal told Cyclingnews. “Dryer weather like today is good, but the roads are complicated and it’ll be an extremely tough day. We have Bauke [Mollema] and Frank [Schleck] is in good condition. We have options. But it’s a hard race to predict and we’ll just try to be up there in all scenarios.”
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) has won Flèche Wallonne and come close at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but the Catalan admitted that Amstel Gold Race is not best-tailored to his characteristics, particularly since the finish was moved to 1.8 kilometres beyond the summit of the Cauberg in 2013.
“Of the three Ardennes Classics, this is the one that suits me the least,” Rodriguez said. “If they had the old finish at the top of the Cauberg that would have been better for me. But it’s a tough race and hard to predict. I’m in good form, coming up after País Vasco, though, so I’m optimistic.”
Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) is another rider who was bubbling under in the Basque Country. After placing fourth here a year ago, the former world champion is among the favourites this afternoon. “It’s a big race, and there are some very fast riders here who can surely open up some big gaps at the top of the climb,” he told Cyclingnews, “Simon Gerrans, Michal Kwiatkowski…I hope that my legs are good, I was certainly going well in Pais Vasco, and if we can try something right at the end, then I’ll do that. But Liege is my favourite of the three Ardennes Classics.”