The traditional curtain-raiser on the Ardennes Classics week, the Amstel Gold Race is sometimes seen simply as a way of whetting the peloton’s appetite for more prestigious prizes on offer in Belgium a few days later. But that’s to do the Dutch one-day Classic a huge injustice.
For locally-born riders, there's the colossal interest the Amstel Gold Race sparks per se in Holland, for one thing. Amstel’s 258-kilometre trek across the hills and valleys of the country’s southernmost outreaches (and even briefly, mid-race, into Germany) constitutes the annual high point of the Netherlands’ cycling calendar.
On an international level, coming hard on the heels of a succession of fraught one-day battles on the cobbles and bergs of Flanders and northern France, one of Amstel’s biggest interest points is its very different racing register. This provides the peloton’s climbers with their first big opportunity of the year to shine in a major one-day Classic. At the same time, the 51-year-old Amstel Gold Race, with its twisting, unpredictable parcours that crisscrosses the Limberg region, and its 34 short, sharp, ascents, act as a magnet for those Classics specialists who can both climb fast and have a real turn of speed in their legs for a flatter finale: the puncheurs.
Amstel's bowl-of-spaghetti-like race route is not universally popular. That’s not only because of Amstel’s bewildering tendency to circle around and back through (then round and back again, and again) the back lanes and country roads of South Holland, all peppered with road furniture. It is technically demanding and, particularly if it rains, a fertile ground for crashes. (If teams bring large numbers of Dutch riders to the Amstel Gold race, it’s not just because they are ultra-motivated for riding on home turf - it’s also because local knowledge on a course like this is invaluable.)
Furthermore, the pros and contras of the 1.8 kilometres tacked onto the end of the Amstel course in 2013 after the race’s fourth and final ascent of the Cauberg climb continue to be the subject of much Internet forum debate. After its introduction, the chances of anything but a huge group roaring into the streets of Valkenberg for one final climb to victory have, seemingly, been drastically reduced. But those extra kilometres have had one definite consequence. The battle for victory has now become one where a small group sprint can decide Amstel Gold Race as often, if not more so, as a late, lone attack up the long, steady curves of Holland’s most famous climb.
As a result, fast finishers who can climb well like defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and his team-mate Michael Matthews are all top favourites for Amstel Gold this Sunday. So too would be Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had the Spanish star not opted to hone his stage racing form prior to the Giro d’Italia in the Vuelta a Castilla y León this weekend, rather than go for the only Ardennes Classic the multiple Liege and Fleche Wallonne champion has failed to win, even once.
On paper, the stand-out favourite, though, should be three-time winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing). However, Gilbert’s recent training incident, leading to a broken finger and a possible entanglement with the law, will keep the question marks hovering around the BMC star’s participation, and possible form, too.
The change in the finale’s route have led to out-and-out uphill finishers such as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) playing down their chances and keeping their powder dry for the more favourable Belgian Classics. Although, late longer-distance breakaways - take a bow Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), who shot away 16 kilometres from the finish to victory in 2013 - still have an outside chance of success.
The key to a successful lone breakaway on the Cauberg itself, in fact, is often the wind. A fast tailwind bowled Philippe Gilbert along in his solo charge to his third Amstel victory in 2014 - and fourth, including the 2012 Worlds’, on the climb. A headwind, on the other hand, makes handling those last two kilometres alone or in a small group a far trickier question. Just to further complicate matters, as Gilbert pointed out in his winner’s press conference that year, the wind direction and speed is very changeable in that part of Holland, sometimes varying mid-afternoon from one ascent of the Cauberg to the next. All of which contribute to Amstel’s unpredictability, of course - which given times the race has boiled down to a huge group of riders at the foot of the Cauberg in recent years, can be no bad thing.
If all of the above was not enough to convince fans of its sporting interest, on a rather more anecdotal level, the Amstel Gold is also - somewhat improbably for a country as laidback as Holland - one of the noisiest races on the calendar. The din created by the huge crowds lining the Cauberg, roaring themselves hoarse as, just a few metres in front of them, their favourites pound up the final climb or rip out of the peloton towards one last battle, is enough to get any cycling fans' adrenaline flowing. Tune in Sunday to see (and hear) for yourself.
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