The Amstel Gold Race kicks off the Ardennes week of WorldTour Classics, with defending champion Philippe Gilbert leading the list of big-name rider in action as he looks for a fourth victory on the roads near his home and where he became world champion in 2012.
This year's Amstel Gold Race is the 50th edition of the Dutch race, and the third since the finish was moved away from the top of the Cauberg and nearly two kilometres down the road. At 258 kilometres long, the Netherlands' biggest one-day race packs a punch with 34 climbs – or bergs – crammed in, making for more than 4,000 metres of climbing. The Cauberg is covered four times and is always important but any winner needs to have excellent form and the right team tactics.
Beginning in Maastricht, the route heads immediately north towards the first ascents of the day, the Slingerberg and Adsteeg, which the riders must tackle after less than 15 kilometres of racing. Once over the Adsteeg, the race begins its move south, with a brief diversion west to take in the Sibbergrubbe before entering a series of ever decreasing circuits.
The first ascent of the Cauberg marks the transition into those circuits, and comes just 54 kilometres into the day's proceedings. The riders will have to contend with the leg busting climb a further three times. From there, the race makes its first passage over the finish line before taking on the Geulhemmerberg and heading south. The climbs come thick and fast as the race nears its halfway point with the Drielandenpunt, Gemmenich and Villenerbos (climbs 12-14) less than 10 kilometres apart, briefly nudging into Belgium en-route.
As the riders make their way back north to complete the circuit they must take on the Gulpenerberg for the first time, a 600-metre ascent that peaks at 13 per cent gradient. The race winds its way up and down five more bergs before it goes once more up the Cauberg, the 22nd climb of the day. The second of the circuits is shorter than the previous but still stuffs in nine climbs over less than 60 kilometres of racing. It includes repeat ascents of the Geulhemmerberg, Loorberg, Gulpenerberg and Cauberg while the Kruisberg makes its one and only appearance. The climb, the 27th of the day, averages 8.3 per cent over 710 metres and tops out at 12.7 per cent.
By the time the riders hit the Cauberg for the third and penultimate time, the peloton will contain only a select few. Roman Kreuziger launched his race winning move not long after here in 2013, after attacking from a group of chasers. Only 18.5 kilometres, and three climbs, remain when the riders pass the finish line for the third time.
A brave move, such as Kreuziger's, could stick from here and no doubt there will be plenty of riders looking to get away. However, punchy riders like Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde will be waiting for the final ascent of the Cauberg, and their BMC and Movistar teams won't want to let anyone pull out too much of a gap. The final run-in to the line is predominantly flat with a slight rise in the last few hundred metres.
Philippe Gilbert launches the race winning move on the Cauberg in 2014
Defending champion Gilbert looks to be on strong form again, after finishing third at Brabantse Pijl behind his BMC teammate Ben Hermans and Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Michael Matthews. He has won the race three times previously but another victory in 2015 would not see him take the record. That belongs to Jan Raas, who won the Amstel Gold Race five times.
Aside from Gilbert, there will be six other former champions in total on the start line in Maastricht, with Kreuziger (2013), David Rebellin (2004), Fränk Schleck (2006), Stefan Schumacher (2007), Damiano Cunego (2008) and Enrico Gasparotto (2012).
Michał Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) has had a good record in the past at Amstel Gold, with a fourth and a fifth place in the last two editions. The world champion returned to racing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, finishing eighth in the overall classification and coming close to victory on the opening day. A good performance here would set him up nicely for the week ahead. Valverde, who finished fourth in 2014, will be another strong contender for the victory.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) finished on the podium last season but his build-up to the Ardennes has been hampered by his recovery from a broken elbow and he is unlikely to be in the mix on Sunday. His teammate Matthews has been on strong form and will be Orica-GreenEdge's leader. The Australian may lack the punch to follow an attack on the Cauberg but if a small bunch comes together after the cresting of the climb, Matthews would be the favourite to take the victory.
Other contenders for victory are Tour of the Basque Country winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Sergio Henao (Team Sky), Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal).
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