The 54th Amstel Gold Race will roll out of Maastricht on Sunday morning, marking the first race of the Ardennes Classics that also feature La Flèche Wallonne on April 24 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 28. The Dutch race also marks a break from the cobbles, as steep, short bergs now rise to the challenge of deciding the winners.
Rather than a battle of attrition over kilometres of punishing cobbles, Amstel Gold winnows out the field of true contenders by crisscrossing the Limburg region on a labyrinth of rolling, narrow country roads, where positioning and teamwork are key. Starting in Maastricht, the peloton will traverse three 'loops' through the Limburg hills, centring on three climbs of the Cauberg, which is then avoided in the final kilometres. Only the Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg climbs are included in the last 16km lap, with narrow descents following both climbs and then seven kilometres to the line.
Fresh off his fourth Monument win at Paris-Roubaix last week, four-time Amstel winner Philippe Gilbert will be on hand to try to add a fifth win to his palmarès – a feat that would pull him equal with Jan Raas. Gilbert's Deceuninck-QuickStep team will bring their usual strong line-up to the one-day race, including 2018 Flèche Wallonne winner Julian Alaphilippe, who is in the midst of a stellar spring.
The Belgian squad will be a big roadblock for Michael Valgren to overcome if the Dimension Data rider wants to repeat his 2018 crown. The Dane, who was riding for Astana in 2018 when he won both Amstel and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, took the race last year by capitalising on the presence of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in an elite eight-rider group, attacking with just over two kilometres to go.
As the others looked to Sagan to chase, Valgren built a significant gap on the rolling, narrow roads. Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott) sensed the danger and rapidly bridged across, while past champion Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida) hesitated a moment too long and chased solo behind the pair, nearly making contact as Valgren opened up his winning sprint.
Valgren's 2019 season has been a much different story than 2018, however, as he has struggled to equal his performances from a year ago. He'll also have to overcome a stacked field that includes recent Brabantse Pijl winner Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), who has proven himself a formidable opponent on all the terrain that the peloton will face again on Sunday.
Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, who was in the final eight-rider move in last year's tactical finale and who placed second at Amstel in 2015, will be on the start line in Maastricht looking to add another win to his lengthy of palmarès. The world champion was recently eighth at the Tour of Flanders during his debut at the race, and his proven ability to be near the front at the end of Amstel makes him a favourite.
Jakob Fuglsang, who was also in the final eight-rider move last year but played the role of loyal Astana teammate when Valgren attacked, will return to Amstel with some unfinished business, although teammate Alexey Lutsenko is primed for the Ardennes races after skipping the cobbled Classics. EF Education First also bring a strong Classics line-up to the race, including recent Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol and perennial Amstel strongman Alex Howes. Michael Kwiatkowski, the 2015 winner, will lead the Team Sky roster, and CCC Team's Greg Van Avermaet will end his Classics campaign at Amstel.
A big unknown for the race will be Sagan, who has ridden strongly throughout the Classics but so far failed to land a big win. Sagan was an animator late in the race at Paris-Roubaix last Sunday, but he wasn't able to respond when Gilbert rode away with Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) at the very end of the day. He's got to be hungry for a win, and his coach has said his build-up has been pointed towards the Ardennes. Sunday will be the first of three chances for Sagan to make that targeting pay off.
Latest on Cyclingnews
Tour de France 2020 route revealedAll the details about next year's race from the big unveiling in Paris
Tour de France 2020 route presentation - Live coverageFollow the presentation here
Watch: Tour de France 2020 route presentation live streamingLive footage from Paris presentation with Chris Froome, Egan Bernal and Thibaut Pinot in attendance - Starts at 11:15 CET
Eddy Merckx to remain in hospital for several days to undergo series of tests74-year-old left intensive care on Monday afternoon