Cannondale-Drapac will head into the Amstel Gold Race and its altered finale with hopes of springing a surprise on the peloton and taking the team's first one-day victory of the season. The American team lacks a top sprinter for the race that now finishes almost eight kilometres from the final climb, but directeur sportif Tom Southam isn't sure if it will come down to a bunch sprint.
"The race organisers are banking on the removal of the Cauberg making it a more aggressive race," Southam said. "I think it could still go either way. From the top of the Bemeleberg now you still have several kilometres to ride to the finish, and if a strong team really wants to ride for a sprint, then there is enough road to make that happen."
Southam is hoping one of his riders can surprise the sprinters. "The fact that the route has changed does open up the possibility that things are misjudged and something a little bit interesting happens. It's been a few years since the race has finished on the flat, so an element of the unknown will play into our hands."
Toms Skujins, who earned the team's only victory of the season so far in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, said, "The riders make the race, so it's up to us to make it exciting and maybe spring a surprise. There will be a worthy winner this year too, no doubt."
Cannondale-Drapac for the Amstel Gold Race: Alberto Bettiol, Brendan Canty, Simon Clarke, Alex Howes, Sebastian Langeveld, Toms Skujins, Tom-Jelte Slagter, and Dylan van Baarle.
Wanty-Groupe Gobert not expecting to defend Amstel Gold Race title
Last season, Wanty-Groupe Gobert scored an emotional victory in the Amstel Gold Race when Enrico Gasparotto darted to the win and dedicated it to Antoine Demoitie, who had only weeks earlier died after a collision in Gent-Wevelgem.
This year, Gasparotto has moved to Bahrain-Merida, and the Dutch pro continental outfit is realistic about its chances.
Directeur sportif Hilaire Van der Schueren said, "Last year we obtained a great victory in Amstel. But we have to recognise that was an exceptional day. We only experience events like that one once in a lifetime. I see Amstel Gold Race this year more as a preparation for the Ardennes classics.
"The new final brings a lot of changes to the race. The organisation hopes to provoke a more open race. What will happen on Sunday is difficult to foresee. I think many teams will want to arrive with a big group, but we saw on Wednesday in Brabantse Pijl that isn't easy to obtain. I prefer not to reveal too much, we will do what we can to score. Dion Smith is a fast finisher, but we have to see what he can do after 260 kilometres of racing."
Wanty-Groupe Gobert for the Amstel Gold Race: Jérôme Baugnies, Thomas Degand, Guillaume Martin, Xandro Meurisse, Marco Minnaard, Andrea Pasqualon, Dion Smith and Pieter Vanspeybrouck.
Owen and Axeon ready for title defense at U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Owen, 22, won last year's race with a 20km solo attack ahead of Russian Pavel Sivakov. He started this season with a stage 4 win at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal in February, and followed that by winning the mountains classification at Classica da Arrabida in March. His spring faced a setback, however, as he recovered from a crash and some sickness before the U23 edition of Gent-Wevelgem last month.
"I feel like I am back on good form and where I need to be to contest for the win again," Owen said in a team press release. "We have a strong team showing up and any one of us can win. I do not feel any extra pressure, but it will be special to line up wearing No. 1 on Saturday."
Owen will have a strong team backing him in the 178km one-day race, including Irishman Eddie Dunbar, winner of the U23 Tour of Flanders on Saturday, and Jhonatan Narvaez of Ecuador, the overall winner and best young rider at Circuit des Ardennes International on Sunday. US riders Will Barta, Adrien Costa and Neilson Powless round out the Axeon Hagens Berman's six-man roster for Liege.
"We are here with a very good group," said Axeon Hagens Berman director Koos Moerenhout. "The guys have proven that in the past few weeks, and they have also improved a lot. They are also showing the mentality that they need for a hard race like this."
Barta and Costa are fresh off helping Narvaez win the overall and Axeon the team title at the Circuit des Ardennes, while Powless was 10th at Ronde van Vlaanderen. Powless also won the individual time trial at Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux earlier this month, edging out Dunbar by fractions of a second.
Moerenhout said he expects the weather could play a factor on Saturday, although as Owen is from the Pacific Northwest and has an impressive cyclo-cross pedigree, the forecasted cold and wet weather could be in his favour.
"Temperatures will be between 8 and 12 degrees Celsius," Moerenhout said. "We could have some rain, too, so that could make a difference. It makes racing in the Wallonne hills even harder."
American CCB Velotooler team confirms An Post Rás participation
First-year US Continental team CCB Velotooler has confirmed its participation in Ireland's An Post Rás in May, according to an announcement released Thursday by the race. The team competed in the race last year as an amateur club team.
Noah Granigan and Cory Small, who finished sixth overall in the U23 classification last year, will both return as part of the five-man team and will be joined by Cooper Willsey, Jonah Mead VanCort and Jake Sitler.
“We learned a lot from competing in the Rás last year," said ten manager Tim Mitchell. "It’s a very tough and unpredictable race, and our experience from 2016 will definitely stand us in good stead. Jake and Cory will be the two most likely to target the general classification, so having those two options will hopefully allow us to be in the mix even if there is a major shake up on GC on one of the days.
"Noah will be targeting a few specific stages and looking for a podium result in those, whether it’s from a break or a reduced bunch sprint," Mitchell said. "Cooper and Jonah will be support riders for the GC guys but will still have freedom to hunt for breakaways. They will also be relied on to position Noah later in stages that he is targeting."
The eight-day UCI 2.2 stage race will take off from Dublin Castle on May 21. The race also announced on Thursday the participation of ROG Ljubljana from Slovenia.