Leading Ardennes Classics contender Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has said that the newly redesigned finale of the Amstel Gold Race is not to his liking and that he preferred the route when it finished, as it has done for over a decade, on or near the summit of the Cauberg.
Valverde has had a superb spring season, winning the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco, and he will be one of the big favourites on Sunday in a race that he has three podium finishes in but has never won.
However, the new 2017 finish sees Amstel Gold return to the flatter finale format that it last used in 2002. Although it will tackle the traditional last climb of the Cauberg three times, after its final ascent, 18 kilometres from the finish, the route will change.
The 2017 261 kilometer route will then go over the last two of its 35 ascents, the Geulhemmerberg at 14 kilometres from the finish, then the Bemelerberg with a little over five kilometres to go, before flattening out and finishing in the town of Valkenberg.
"It’s a worse route for me," Valverde told Cyclingnews during the Volta a Catalunya, "there won’t be such a harsh selection process as when it finished on top of the Cauberg or just beyond it.
"It’s still a hard race now, but it’s not so demanding."
A three times winner of Liège Bastogne Liège and a record-breaking four times champion in La Flèche Wallonne, Valverde did not race in the Amstel Gold last year, as he was taking part in the Vuelta a Castilla y León stage race, which he won, as part of his Giro d’Italia build-up. Together with Philippe Gilbert (Quick Step Floors) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), though, come Sunday the Spanish racer will be one of the top favourites
Quite apart from his brilliant spring season so far, Valverde has long been a perennial contender in Amstel Gold: he took second in 2015, fourth in 2014, second in 2013, third in 2008, sixth in 2007, as well as a string of top twenty places stretching back to 23rd in 2006. However, victory has alway eluded him.
"I’ve never won it, of course, it’s the Ardennes race which I always would like to win the most for that reason," Valverde added.
In 2013 the Amstel Gold route was changed slightly but significantly, pushing back the race finish at the top of the Cauberg to a position 1.8 kilometres further on from the top of the short, but punchy Dutch climb. Delving even further back in the record books, Valverde is one of a tiny handful of pros still racing who rode in Amstel when it last finished on the flat, back in 2002, in the not-so.glamourous surroundings of a Maastricht suburb in the shadow of a cement factory. But he was no fan of flat Amstels then, either, telling Cyclingnews “I did for one year only, I was very young and it was raining and I didn’t enjoy it at all.”
That year, Valverde was racing as a neo with Kelme-Costa Blanca’s depleted six man team for the Dutch race. Whilst Michele Bartoli outsprinted Sergui Ivanov, Lance Armstrong and Michael Boogerd in a four-man rainsoaked finish in Maastricht from the finish, Valverde was a DNF. For the record, that Amstel’s last climb was the Saint-Antoniusbank, with eight kilometres to go.
Apart from Valverde, the handful of pros who did complete the course back in 2002 who are still riding in today’s peloton include Spanish veteran Angel Vicioso (Katusha) - also due to be riding on Sunday - Martin Elmiger (BMC Racing Team) and Davide Rebellin (Kuwait-Cartucho.es).
Four years later, on the new Cauberg finish in 2006, Rebellin won the Amstel Gold outright, but this April he will spend his Amstel Sunday on the other side of the world in the final stage of the Tour de Lombok in Indonesia, where the 45-year-old is currently lying fourth overall. Elmiger, meanwhile, is not taking part and Vicioso will be racing as a support rider for his team leaders. As for Valverde, suffice to say the Spaniard will be gunning for a very different kind of result to the one he garnered in Amstel 15 years ago.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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