Cauberg will be key again, says Meersman
There may be an alteration to the finale of Amstel Gold Race this year, but Jelle Vanendert and Lotto Belisol do not expect any significant deviation from the traditional script in the Netherlands this Sunday.
In recent years, the main contenders have by and large kept their powder dry in anticipation of the final sprint to the top of the Cauberg, where the race has finished since 2003. In a bid to encourage more attacks from further out, organisers have this year cut the distance between the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg and the finish by two kilometres.
Vanendert is not convinced that the tweak to the course will alter the approach of the main contenders, however, as any attackers over the Keutenberg still have 10 kilometres to race before reaching the foot of the Cauberg.
"It doesn't really matter, only the long descent is gone," Vanendert told reporters at Lotto Belisol's pre-race press conference in Maastricht on Friday. "I'm not convinced that it benefits the attackers. It's all wide open fields at the top of the Keutenberg, so a lot will depend on where the wind is coming from."
In the event of a group finish, Vanendert conceded that there are few riders in the peloton who can contend with the likes of the Spanish pair Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) on an explosive climb such as the Cauberg.
"There aren't a lot of riders capable of beating them on these finishes, except for [Philippe] Gilbert," he said.
Twelve months ago, Vanendert was Gilbert's most trusted lieutenant as he dominated Amstel Gold Race and the Ardennes classics in the colours of Omega Pharma-Lotto. A year is a long time in cycling, however, and while Gilbert struggles for form at BMC, Vanendert will lead the line for Lotto Belisol alongside Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Gianni Meersman.
After a quiet opening to the season, Vanendert gave the first significant signs of his form with a seventh place finish at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday. Freed from the burden of supporting an outright favourite, the Belgian will have the chance to play his own hand in the coming week.
"I've worked specifically towards this time of the season," he said. "In any case, in these races, it's often a matter of riding near the front. If you can do that, it makes it all a lot easier on this type of courses."
Gianni Meersman echoed his teammate's belief that the Amstel Gold Race would ultimately hinge on the final 800 metres up the Cauberg, and warned that the preceding 255 kilometres would be an exercise in the preservation of energy.
"On Sunday, it's clear that you must try to avoid doing anything before the last climb, and then at the foot of it, I hope that we're able to do something with Jelle and Jurgen," he said.
While Van Den Broeck and Vanendert have a greater pedigree in the late April classics, Meersman was bullish about his own chances of taking up the reins of leadership should the opportunity arise. "After 200km we'll know more and see who is the best out of the three of us," he said, when asked about Lotto Belisol's tactical approach.
Meersman approaches Amstel Gold Race still smarting from a disappointing showing at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday. After a solid outing at the Tour of the Basque Country the previous week, the new arrival from FDJ had expected to be in the mix in the finale at Overijse.
"I thought Brabantse Pijl would be the race that suited me best out of these, but that turned out to be a failure," he admitted, adding that Amstel Gold Race was his best chance to make amends in the coming week. "The climbs there are more explosive, which is better for me and the finish is much less steep than the Mur de Huy."
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