With Tim Wellens in good form to start the season, Lotto-Soudal are among the teams looking for a strong result at Amstel Gold Race. The Belgian took third at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday, and named the men he finished with as the main favourites for the first in the Ardennes trilogy, picking out Corendon-Circus phenom Mathieu van der Poel for particular analysis.
Wellens finished behind the 24-year-old and Julian Alaphilippe at Wednesday’s race. The duo are among most people’s favourites at Amstel, with Wellens saying that even his own grandmother sees the Dutchman as near-unbeatable.
"A few days ago I was with my grandmother, just before Brabantse Pijl," Wellens said in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad. "She asked ‘is Van der Poel riding? Yes? Oh, then it’s for second place.’
"I had to laugh a lot about that, but it will be true every now and then; every race in which Van der Poel participates, he rides to win."
There are other favourites too, of course. In a pre-race team statement, Wellens named his companions in the lead group at Brabantse Pijl as the top favourites. He sees a wider field of contenders at Sunday’s race, though.
"Van der Poel, Alaphilippe and Matthews are of course again among the favourites," he said, "but that list will be extended with [Peter] Sagan, [Greg] Van Avermaet, [Alejandro] Valverde and the strong team of Astana.
"I think the Amstel Gold Race is a nice race, a bit like the Tour of Flanders but without the cobblestones. Knowing the region much better than the Flemish Ardennes [Wellens hails from Sint-Truiden, 50km from the finish of Amstel] is to my advantage though.
"The difference with La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is that positioning is less important there than in Amstel, which is in my favour because I am good at it. As a team, we should never be chasing. When outsiders or helpers of the main favourites attack, there must be a Lotto-Soudal rider there as well."
The Belgian squad bring a strong team to Ardennes week, with Bjorg Lambrecht, Maxime Monfort, and two-time Amstel runner-up Jelle Vanendert in their squad. Lambrecht was fifth at Brabantse Pijl, and the 22-year-old could be a key lieutenant if he can get to grips with the extended length of these races.
"The team was very strong on Wednesday, as the nice fifth place of Bjorg Lambrecht proved," said Wellens. "The question for him is whether he can also play a significant role in a long and tough classic. That is, of course, part of his development, but I am curious."
But again, the young name on everyone’s lips heading into the race is Van der Poel. Brabantse Pijl was the latest of five wins so far in a 2019 which also saw him finish fourth at his debut Tour of Flanders.
Having raced cyclo-cross though the winter and taking a selective race schedule so far this season, he has utilised a differing strategy to most other classics contenders. It’s something that has played to his favour, according to Wellens.
"Maybe he gets up every morning at six o’clock and takes care of himself all day?” he said, to Het Nieuwsblad. "But what he does is impressive. He makes us full-time road cyclists look… ridiculous is a big word, but it’s a big deal.
"All pro riders train quietly in the winter – we focus 100 per cent on this period. And those men [Van der Poel and Wout Van Aert] are not doing that at all. They ‘cross the whole time – an hour long, several times a week. And yet they are now better than most road racers."
Of course, Wellens hopes that he moves up two places on the podium come Sunday afternoon, taking Van der Poel’s Brabantse Pijl spot. For the past 10 years a warm-up for the big three, winning there isn’t everything, as Wellens found out last year.
"During the final local lap [last year at Amstel], it was a cat-and-mouse game of attacks, while we also caught the escapees very late. Valgren and Kreuziger were eventually granted just enough freedom to fight for the win," he said.
"I am not against a similar outcome on Sunday, because I need to play poker a bit to get rid of the faster riders. It will come down to choosing the right moment to attack.The Brabantse Pijl was a successful test, which showed my shape is good. That does not automatically mean I will be great in the Amstel Gold Race, but I am going to start without any doubts."