After two years away, including a year in which the race wasn't held at all, the Amstel Gold Race returns on Sunday, welcoming back some of the sport's biggest Classics riders.
In the wake of his Tour of Flanders victory, Mathieu van der Poel looms large over the 56th edition of the Amstel Gold Race, with a repeat of his comeback 2019 triumph almost expected in the absence of his longtime rival Wout van Aert and his Flanders rival Tadej Pogačar.
The Dutchman has confounded doubts since making his surprise early return to racing at Milan-San Remo in the middle of March. A lingering back issue dating to last May appears resolved, hopefully for good but at least for the near future.
Immediately, he placed third in San Remo before winning a stage at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, triumphing in a non-stop finish at Dwars door Vlaanderen and then out-thinking the stronger Pogačar at the end of a brutal 272km at Flanders last weekend.
Of the 175 men set to line up in Maastricht on Sunday morning, then, Van der Poel is the number one favourite.
He is the sole representative at the race of the four superstar all-rounders who have emerged in recent years – Van Aert and Pogačar among them, with world champion Julian Alaphilippe the fourth.
This year, Amstel Gold Race represents something of an early crossover between the cobbled Classics and the Ardennes following its calendar switch with Paris-Roubaix. There's a healthy mix of those hoping to hold form for next week and those aiming for the Ardennes, with Van der Poel himself something in between as a contender for both races.
Another man in a similar position, and another multi-disciplinarian who threatens to muscle his way into that group of four, is Tom Pidcock, the Ineos Grenadiers leader who finished second last year by a near-imperceptible margin.
The Briton has only shared race days with Van der Poel 11 times during his short career, with Milan-San Remo, Dwars, and Flanders the three occasions in 2022.
Seemingly the greatest threat to Van der Poel on Sunday, the 22-year-old has recovered from stomach problems that set him back in March, even if a relative lack of top-end condition hindered him at the end of over six hours of racing in Flanders.
The twisting race route
With 33 climbs lying on the mazy 254km route around Maastricht and Valkenburg at Amstel Gold Race, Pidcock will be hoping to recover that endurance that he didn't quite have last week.
It's probably fair to say that the race is among the less mythologised of the spring Classics, and even among the Ardennes Classics. As a result, there are few climbs among those 33 hills that evoke the same emotions as the likes of the Cipressa, Poggio, Muur van Geraardsbergen, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, La Redoute, or Mur de Huy.
There is the Cauberg, though. Once the finale to the race, but now one of several hills nestled in the finale 24km from the line. It also crops up after 53.8km and 162.7km. Many an Amstel Gold Race victory has been launched there but, much like the Muur in Flanders, a modern route change has seen it cast away from being a point on which the race hinges.
As climb 31, it faces the riders on their penultimate passage through the finish line, though a short final circuit bypasses Cauberg. That loop, which is tackled once, instead takes in Geulhemmerberg (19.3km out) and Bemelerberg (7.3km out) before the finish.
That spiced up final, moved past the top of Cauberg in 2013 and altered again to excise a fourth ascent of the hill in 2017, has seemed to change the race for the better, though. While previously, late surges up the climb would predictably secure the win (similar to La Flèche Wallonne, in that regard), nowadays it is small groups who contest the finish year after year.
Van der Poel and Pidcock are the outright favourites to triumph in Berg en Terblijt but, of course, there are plenty of contenders and outsiders ready to challenge them.
Jumbo-Visma might be without Van Aert, but they will still boast one of the strongest lineups at the start. Little else needs to be said about Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot, the new additions to the Dutch squad having impressed alongside the team leader numerous times through the spring.
The pair look to form a classic one-two punch, with Laporte able to cope with the hills and rely on a formidable sprint, while Benoot is more suited to attacking on the climbs. They'll have Tom Dumoulin in the team, too. The man from Maastricht has struggled with illness so far this season but showed signs of decent form with sixth at the nearby Volta Limburg Classic earlier this week.
Pidcock can rely on a strong team, with former race winner Michał Kwiatkowski ready to ride in a super-domestique role and possibly go for it himself if the situation calls for it. British neo-pro Ben Turner also starts, continuing his impressive spring, while Flanders runner-up Dylan van Baarle is in top form and showed at the Leuven Worlds last year that he can be as strong as anyone in hills like these.
With Alaphilippe racing in the Basque Country to peak for the Belgian Ardennes races, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl aren't built for this race, but in the midst of a very disappointing Classics campaign they will surely grasp any hint of success.
The cobbled Classics leaders Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Stybar, Florian Sénéchal will be racing with an eye on Roubaix, with the Dane best-placed of the trio to succeed on this kind of terrain. Climber Andrea Bagioli could also take his chance, the Italian in form having won the punchy final stage of the Volta a Catalunya recently.
Four-time race winner Philippe Gilbert heads up Lotto Soudal as the veteran seeks to equal Jan Raas' victory record on what will be his final outing at the race. Given his results so far in 2022, though, he's best considered an outsider. Tim Wellens, whose form has seemingly fizzled following a superb February, and time triallist turned Classics man Victor Campenaerts are also worthy of brief consideration.
French squads AG2R Citroën and Groupama-FDJ come with a couple of strong options in Benoït Cosnefroy and the in-form Valentin Madous, who podiumed at Flanders. Both men are well-suited to this terrain, and both are backed up by a couple of cobbled Classics men aiming to keep their form up ahead of Roubaix in Greg Van Avermaet and Stefan Küng.
Matej Mohorič is another rider who has enjoyed a stellar spring with his win at Milan-San Remo. The Slovenian is well-suited to the Ardennes and finished fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège two years ago. His Bahrain Victorious squad will have multiple options, too, with Dylan Teuns (sixth at Flanders) and Jan Tratnik (12th) both looking very good recently.
Amstel Gold Race is among Michael Matthews' favourite races - something of a rare admission in the peloton. The Australian has finished in the top five three times and in is good form, so he's well worth a shout.
So too is Marc Hirschi, who leads UAE Team Emirates following a late start to the season due to hip surgery. He won his first race back at Per Sempre Alfredo, finished third at Coppi e Bartali and was top 10 at the GP Larciano and GP Indurain, so he's clearly in nice shape and will count promising teenage climber Juan Ayuso among his support riders.
EF Education-EasyPost look good on paper, but Alberto Bettiol's spring has so far been ruined by illness, while 2018 winner Michael Valgren has shown worryingly few signs of form this year. DSM leader Søren Kragh Andersen's shape is also in question after illness ruled him out of Flanders last week.
Movistar, with no Alejandro Valverde, also come with a duo of outside shouts in Alex Aranburu and Iván García Cortina. The two Spaniards are adept on the hills and both have a good sprint, too. Their collective palmarès includes stage wins at Itzulia and Paris-Nice, but neither man has yet proven himself as a major contender in this kind of Classic.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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