Just a week after what is perhaps the flattest major Classic on the calendar, Sunday's Amstel Gold Race brings punchier riders to the fore as the first of three so-called 'Ardennes Classics'.
Putting aside the fact that the race doesn't really go through the Ardennes region – sticking mostly to the Dutch Limburg region instead – it makes for a fine opener to the series of hilly one-days that continues with La Flèche Wallonne the following Wednesday, and next Sunday's Monument finale, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The Amstel Gold Race runs a little over 260km in total from Maastricht to Berg en Terblijt near Valkenburg. The road will take the peloton on a meandering trek through the southern Netherlands with a route that loops back over itself multiple times.
The official count of 35 total ascents includes many repeats, with three visits to the short but iconic Cauberg and its stretches of double-digit gradients. The climbers will look forward to a chance to put their skills on display particularly in the final 40 kilometres, with climbs of the Eyserbosweg, Fromberg, Keutenberg, Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg on tap. However, the organisers have cut a fourth climb of the Cauberg out of the finale in the hopes of shaking up a race that had gotten predictable, with the main contenders typically waiting for a showdown on the last climb.
It remains to be seen how the race will play out with the Bemelerberg, which has served as the penultimate challenge for years, as the last official climb on the parcours now. After the climb comes a descent, a short uphill and the finishing straight.
Taking the Cauberg out of the closing kilometres might spur riders to go on the attack from further out this Sunday, but it also would seem to boost the chances of a sprint, reduced or otherwise. Even if an attack does get clear, it won't be easy for a strong escapee to leave any hangers-on behind without the proving ground of the Cauberg. In other words, a fast finish could very likely come in handy at the Amstel Gold Race no matter how it plays out.
Bahrain-Merida bring both the defending champion – two-time winner Enrico Gasparotto – and last year's third-place finisher Sonny Colbrelli, on fine form after winning Brabantse Pijl Wednesday. It's unclear what they team plan to do with their wealth of options, but these are two riders that complement each other well. In any case, both are top options this year.
Movistar's Alejandro Valverde has never won Amstel, but he has the perfectly tailored skillset for a long, lumpy one-day that favours fast finishers. Given the excellent form he's proven across the early season, Valverde will deserve all the attention the peloton is sure to give him as a top contender.
Speaking of excellent form, Philippe Gilbert has been in great shape throughout the whole Classics season, and is only just now reaching the terrain that he has been most comfortable on over the course of his career. The question mark for the Belgian is what the kind of preparation necessary to win a cobbled Classic will mean for his Ardennes campaign. Regardless, Amstel is the Ardennes race that suits him the most, and as a three-time winner – who also won a world title atop the Cauberg – Gilbert belongs in the favourites conversation. Quick-Step will be without Julian Alaphilippe, who is still recovering from a knee injury, but Dan Martin and Petr Vakoc provide other viable options.
Michal Kwiatkowski won the event back in 2015 and is only a few weeks removed from claiming Sky's second ever Monument win. Without the Cauberg, he may have to work harder to get clear of some of his rivals but he and Sergio Henao too give Sky cards to play.
Sunweb's Michael Matthews stands out among the fastest finishers on the start list. Coming off a nice stage win in the Vuelta al País Vasco, he looks to be in fine shape and should be near the front should the race end in a sprint. Direct Énergie, meanwhile, will hope Bryan Coquard can hang on for a fast finish, where he would be deadly.
Greg Van Avermaet's will hope he can stretch his Monument-winning form one Classic further for BMC. Lotto Soudal have riders to send on the attack in Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot. Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini are a fine one-two punch for Orica-Scott, while UAE Team Emirates have a rider for practically every race scenario with Ben Swift, Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa. Surprise 2016 runner-up Michael Valgren, Fabio Felline, Nathan Haas, and Jay McCarthy are others to watch Sunday.