The Amstel Gold Race returned from a lengthy hiatus two years ago but has quickly risen to be one of the most anticipated Women's WorldTour races of the season, alongside its Ardennes Classic sister races Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, both in Belgium. Amstel Gold Race stands out among the other two, however, because it's held in the Netherlands, and along with the men's race, has added to professional cycling's growing fan-base throughout the nation.
Held on April 21, Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition will begin in Maastricht and finish 126.8km later on short, hilly circuits in nearby Valkenburg. Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) is just one of the nation's many world-class pro cyclists and is one of the favourites to win all three Ardennes Classics. However, she favours the Amstel Gold Race because of its location on home soil.
"My main focus will be at the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège," van Vleuten wrote in her latest blog on Cyclingnews. "I think that Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will probably suit me the best, but Amstel Gold is in the Netherlands, and so it's my 'home' race. Winning there would be extra special.
"It starts in Maastricht, a city where cycling is growing in popularity, but because of the Amstel Gold Race, it's easy to see how popular men's and women's cycling has become in the whole of the Netherlands. Every year, I see more and more women coming to watch our race and to join in the Amstel Gold experience the day before."
Amstel Gold Race is tough, but not typically one for the pure climbers; instead, it will cater to powerful riders like defending champion and Dutch road champion Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans). There is an extensive amount of climbing spread over 17 short hills, and so that does give a rider like van Vleuten, who can climb and time trial, a fair chance at victory.
After leaving Maastricht, the race embarks on a 73km loop through the Limburg region. That's where they hit the first seven climbs: Slingerberg, Adsteeg, Lang Raaberg, Eyserbowsweg, Fromberg and Keutenberg, all range from 700-2,700 metres in length and have varying maximum grades between 6% and 9%, with the Keutenberg offering sections as steep at 22%.
The peloton will then hit the Cauberg for the first time signifying the start of the 18km final circuits in Valkenburg. They will race three circuits that include the triple climbs: Cauberg (800m/6.5%), Geulhemmerberg (1,000m/5%) and Bemelerberg (900m/4.5%).
They will circle the route once more and climb the Cauberg for a fourth and final time, and once over the top, there are 1.6km to the finish.
Cyclingnews selected 10 riders to watch for the Ardennes Classics, and many of them will be on the start line for the kick off at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday.
Reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen will line up in her new rainbow jersey, and with a target on all three Ardennes Classics. She is the only rider to have won all three races in one season, in 2017, when Amstel returned from a hiatus and organizers of Liège added a women's race alongside its long-running men's event. Although she didn't complete the triple last year, she did win Flèche and Liège.
Boels-Dolmans have several potential winners, however, with defending champion Blaak, Katie Hall, Amy Pieters and Annika Langvad. They will all line up in a newly designed pink kit and bikes in support of breast cancer research. The team will auction off the pink kits and equipment after Amstel Gold Race, an donate their prize money, and all proceeds will got to Pink Ribbon, an organisation that finances breast cancer research.
Van Vleuten's Mitchelton-Scott team will also be tough to beat with Amanda Spratt, who is also focused on winning during the Ardennes Classic week. Although neither won during last year's Ardennes stint, they both played heavily into the finals of each, and both featured on the podiums with Spratt third at Amstel.
Another Dutch favourite is Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv), who targetted strong performances at Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes Classics this year. She has committed to racing Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After puncturing at Tour of Flanders, she will want to have another crack at victory this weekend. Also look out for her teammate Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who has featured among the top 10 regularly during the Ardennes.
Sunweb also have a Dutch contender in Lucinda Brand, who was second behind Blaak at Amstel Gold Race last year, and will no doubt want to do one better this time around.
Outside of the dominant Dutch riders, there are a handful of other nations that have cards to play during Amstel Gold Race. Italy's Marta Bastianelli (Virtu Cycling) has had an outstanding season with victories at Omloop van het Hageland, Ronde van Drenthe, and most remarkably at the Tour of Flanders. She is also the leader of the Women's WorldTour. She can climb and sprint and is obviously in great form.
Denmark's Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla) has stepped up her game this year, shown by several strong performances: fifth at Strade Bianche, and third places at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Tour of Flanders. Poland's Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) is always a contender during the Ardennes Classics. In previous years, she has stood on the podium at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but don't count her out for a top performance at Amstel Gold.
Great Britain's Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) announced in early April that she would return early from maternity leave and line up at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She was second behind van der Breggen in all three races in 2017.
Cyclingnews will have a full report, results and gallery, along with related news directly following Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition.