With the conclusion of the cobbled Classics, the peloton's focus now shifts toward the three Ardennes Classics, and its opening round, the Amstel Gold Race. Only two men have ever swept the trio of hilly races, and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) has taken one step toward repeating his feat of 2011 by winning the Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday.
Although Gilbert has only stepped onto one Ardennes Classics podium since 2011, he will nonetheless begin Sunday’s 251km race with a target on his back.
Challengers who could shoot Gilbert down include the top four from last year in reverse order, Polish road race champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and defending champion Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Minus Kreuziger, all three started 2014 at lightning speed winning both one-day and stage races. Valverde and Kwiatkowski have held their form from February while Gerrans has been struck down by illness.
The 49th edition of Amstel Gold Race is sure to be another race of attrition with over 30 climbs, twists and turns and a plethora of traffic furniture to keep the peloton on its toes for six-and-half-hours. While the race is youngest of the Ardennes classics, the creation of Ton Vissers and Herman Krott, the list of winners is long and illustrious.
Dutchman Jan Raas holds the record of most wins with five, which included four straight, while Eddy Merxck, Gerrie Knetemann, Rolf Järmann and Gilbert all have two wins to their name. Gilbert has the opportunity to jump ahead and claim a third win.
After the cobbled classics and the continued drought of the Italians, La Gazzetta dello Sport have turned their attention to just who can break the duck.
Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) rode a canny race in 2012 to pip Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol) on the line in Amstel, while Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won the sprint for third. Gasparotto defended his title with a credible ninth place last year but he looks unlikely to challenge for the win this year.
Diego Ulissi (Lampre Merida) has proven he has a kick that is just as fast as Gerrans' and may just be man that Italy has been calling out for.
The prospect of victory is looking better for the French with Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Arthur Vichot (FDJ.fr) two outsiders for a maiden Amstel Gold crown. Bardet’s teammate Carlos Betancur was impressive during the Ardennes last year and looks to have his sights on La Flèche Wallonne or Liège–Bastogne–Liège more than Amstel Gold.
The Schleck brothers both have tasted victory in the Ardennes – Frank in 2008 Amstel Gold in 2006 and Andy in Liège in 2009 – although their target may also be later in the week.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and compatriot Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge) and the French duo of Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) are capable of causing an upset but a top-ten placing seems more likely.
Garmin Sharp look like they have several hands to play in Darn Martin, Tom-Jelte Slagter and Nathan Haas while Joaquim Rodriguez is always dangerous when there are ascents in sight, in particular when paired with Katusha teammate Dani Moreno.
With a stellar start list, Amstel Gold is sure to set off the week of racing with aggressive and offensive riding on display, where sub-plots of 2014 Ardennes Classics first emerge, names are made and palmarès consolidated.
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