The Amstel Gold Race is back in it's usual spring slot to mark the transition of the season to the Ardennes Classics and while some of the rivalries that we’ve seen building so far this year will continue, the hillier terrain and different levels of form brings a reshuffling of the board amongst the big-name riders to watch.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) will be absent as he instead turns focus to his third cycling discipline of the year – mountain biking in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics – while the postponement of Paris-Roubaix has seen his constant rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) press on.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), on the other hand, always planned to continue his Classics campaign all the way to Liège-Bastogne-Liège and we’ll also see Tadej Pogačar (Jumbo-Visma) shifting over from stage racing at Itzulia Basque Country, along with Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who’ll be taking one last shot at the Ardennes.
The Dutch race too, is taking a different shape. After being cancelled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the usual twisting route through Limburg hill country has been replaced by repeated laps of a 16.9 kilometre circuit in the hinterland of Valkenburg.
We have picked out 10 of the key riders to watch as the race loops around the 219 kilometre course with 3,000 metres of climbing.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
Victory at Brabantse Pijl midweek was a major milestone in the British talent’s young career. Since he turned pro at the end of February he has already produced an astounding string of performances but now he has a win to go along with them.
The way he dispatched Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) in the three-up sprint was yet more evidence of the breadth of his talents. Little by little, more is being revealed of Tom Pidcock and without any discernible gaps in his armour appearing.
The Ardennes were always expected to be the races where Pidcock would be at his best. It was only his showings at the Opening Weekend – aggressive at Omloop and third in the bunch sprint at Kuurne – that persuaded him to expand his cobbled campaign. He didn’t quite hit the right notes at Dwars and Flanders, raising question marks over waning form, but he swept those aside on Wednesday. Brabantse Pijl forms something of a bridge between the cobbles and Ardennes and the even hillier Amstel is likely to play even further to his strengths.
His attacks on Wednesday, coupled with his final sprint, will have a lot of riders worried on Sunday.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)
Wout van Aert is still the favourite with numerous bookmakers but it’s Roglič who’s looking like Jumbo-Visma’s best bet.
After the Tour of Flanders, Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl offered further evidence that Van Aert, while still at a level to ride away from most of the field, is some way short of the height of his powers.
Having extended his spring into the Ardennes, following the postponement of Paris-Roubaix, Amstel is his final appearance before a break and it’s now looking like a bit of a stretch.
Roglič, meanwhile, comes into the race on the back of a fine overall victory at the punchy Itzulia Basque Country. The in-form Jonas Vingegaard also joins a team that’s strengthened from mid-week and should be able to exert some influence on the local laps.
Not that this will be about controlling the race for Roglič. Van Aert indicated that he can take more of a back seat and wait for a possible sprint while Roglič rides a more open race. The Slovenian has become known for late attacks but his victory at Liège last year showed his ability in one-day races and his performance on the final day of the Basque Country demonstrated his ability to navigate chaotic race situations.
He has the climbing legs, has the sprint, and, after outmanoeuvring his foe Tadej Pogačar in the Basque Country, will be brimming with confidence.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
The world champion does not possess quite the same fearsome form he has taken into the past couple of Classics campaigns, but that’s not to say he won’t be at his best from Sunday. He kept his cobbled appearances to a minimum and, despite playing a role in Kasper Asgreen’s Tour of Flanders victory, it became clear he wasn’t at the height of his powers. With just one win on the board this season, the Frenchman appears to have been keeping something in reserve for the Ardennes, which were always his first love.
After failing to finish his first Amstel, Alaphilippe has finished no lower than seventh in his four subsequent appearances. He really ought to have won in 2019, when he was just gearing up to outsprint Jakob Fuglsang when he looked around – as surprised as all of us – to see the advancing Mathieu van der Poel.
With the best uphill punch in the business, he has the tools to win on Sunday and, if he has indeed timed his form carefully, he’ll start as a major favourite.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
The Amstel Gold Race is a strange hole in what is an otherwise comprehensive Alejandro Valverde palmarès.
Despite winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège on four occasions, and La Flèche Wallonne on five, the Spaniard has never managed the career Ardennes triple. He has three podiums to his name and two further top-fives, but victory has eluded him, and this is one of his last chances, if not the very last chance.
Valverde heads into the Ardennes without the favourite tag that once followed him around but as a dark horse after a recent vein in form. It had appeared Valverde’s career was on the wane, his last win stretching back to the summer of 2019, and his last in the Ardennes back in 2017. As he hit 40, it seemed he was finally slowing down, but there has been something of a resurgence of late.
He placed fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya and fifth at Itzulia Basque Country, either side of a win at the GP Indurain that suggested he was back near his punchy best.
He might not be among the top favourites for Sunday, but he’s back in the mix and, as ever with Valverde, stranger things have happened.
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Compared to Roglič , the German had a quiet week in the Basque Country. However, his form is better than his 27th place suggests. He was just shy of the top 10 going into the final day, and working for teammate Emanuel Buchmann, but the pair missed the boat on the descent where the race opened up.
Having won Paris-Nice for the second time in two years, he only raced Milan-San Remo ahead of the Basque Country and should arrive fresh at his most important period of the year.
After breaking through at QuickStep, Schachmann placed no lower than fifth in the three major Ardennes Classics in his first season with Bora-Hansgrohe in 2019. An all-rounder with a fast finish and climbing legs that have sparked Grand Tour speculation, a major one-day victory beckons.
Schachmann will be joined in Bora-Hansgrohe’s line-up by second-year pro Ide Schelling, another one to watch after his relentless breakaway attempts in Catalunya and Basque, and his remarkable fourth place in Brabantse Pijl.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
Amstel Gold Race features just behind Milan-San Remo in the ‘how hasn’t Michael Matthews won that race’ stakes.
The Australian looks to possess all the key ingredients but arguably missed his best chances when the race finished just beyond the Cauberg. It has since become a much more open-ended affair but Matthews still has the potential to shine, especially on the new lap-based course.
He should be nearing top form, too. On the cobbles, he was fifth at Gent-Wevelgem, despite cramps in the finale that he put down to not being at his best yet. He was 21st at Flanders with a bit of bad luck but indicated his form was on the up. He didn’t have a chance to show it at Brabantse Pijl and it remains to be seen if his crash at that race affects him physically at all.
In any case, motivation will be high for a rider who has described Amstel as the race of his dreams.
“It's a massive one for me, more than just a bike race,” he told us last year.
Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates)
The breakout star of 2020 has trodden quietly so far this year. He only made his season debut in late March, after a dramatic winter that saw him suddenly leave Sunweb for UAE without reason, and with speculation that crept in between the lines.
Hirschi has eased his way into the season working for others. He hasn’t shown anything like the form he had last year and there are big question marks over whether these Ardennes Classics come too soon for him. Liège is still over a week away, but Amstel might be a stretch.
Still, it will be fascinating to see what kind of Hirschi we see in his first major appointment for his new team. He won Flèche and was runner-up at Liège last year, right after winning bronze at Worlds and his exploits at the Tour de France.
On that basis alone, he cannot be counted out. Matteo Trentin, third at Brabantse Pijl is arguably the more reliable performer in the UAE camp but the Italian looks a notch below the very best riders, while the very best Hirschi would be more of a match for them on the hillier Amstel parcours.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech)
After an extensive vein of form over the past couple of years, Fuglsang has been quiet so far in 2021. He was present but almost invisible in the Itzulia Basque Country, where Ion Izagirre, Alex Aranburu, and Omar Fraile flew the flag for Astana.
It has been a far cry from his 2019 campaign, which saw him place third at Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth at Itzulia going into a string of 3-2-1 at Amstel, Flèche, and Liège.
Still, the Dane insisted there was no reason to doubt his condition.
“If I look at where I’m at right now, I’m as good, if not better, than two years ago,” he told us in the Basque Country.
If he’s as good as his word, he can’t be discounted. However, the new course arguably dampens his chances as he’d prefer a longer, more exacting affair.
Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Victorious)
The Belgian’s campaign so far has been nothing to write home about but he feels his results don’t do justice to his rides.
Teuns has indeed shown glimpses of real strength without ever being able to turn a race in his favour. After he won stages in the Dauphiné and Tour in 2019, then the Ruta del Sol in 2020, many predicted a breakthrough spring victory last year.
The pandemic got in the way in 2020 and some of the gloss has been stripped off his momentum, but the Ardennes remain the races that suit him better than cobbles, given his climbing abilities.
At Brabantse Pijl in midweek, Teuns once again felt he was worth more than his seventh place. He rode an aggressive race but was caught out by Pidcock’s second attack on the Hertstraat and a chase with Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën Team) proved futile. Nevertheless, he’s in decent shape and just needs things to start clicking.
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation)
The Canadian is much more of an outsider compared to many of the names on this list. That’s partly because of the question marks over his form following his early exit from the Basque Country and because, of the three Ardennes races, Amstel is probably the least suited to him.
However, he has described it as one of his favourite races of the year, likening the experience to playing Mario-Kart. As for his form, there’s probably no need for major concern, given his DNF at Itzulia was largely precautionary. Woods has painted a massive target on this week and, even if he’s lost a few race days, his decision showcases his confidence in what he can do.
Woods made a late start to his professional cycling career but has improved every step of the way. He won Milano-Torino in 2019 and the Ardennes represent a huge opportunity for that top-level Classic scalp, having placed third at Flèche and seventh at Liège last year. Even if it’s difficult to see him finishing off a race like Amstel, it should give us an indication, we should get a glimpse of whether Woods can reel in a big one next week.
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