19 April 2015
The second part of the spring season continues with the first of the three Ardennes Classics. The cobblestones in Belgium and France are replaced by short and steep hills in Holland. It’s time for Amstel Gold Race!
This year, there haven’t been any major changes to the route. The race still consists of narrow roads and twisty bends with a total of 34 hills to overcome. The final one, Cauberg (800 m / avg. 12 %), will be done four times. Since the World Championships in 2012, the finishing line has been placed 1800 meters after the top of Cauberg. This means it’s not just enough to be a strong puncheur anymore, you also have to be able to keep a chase group behind you on the flat part. The wind plays an important factor here. A tailwind will help a lone attacker, while a headwind will increase the chances of a sprint significantly. As of Wednesday, the weather forecast predicts a light tailwind.
For the 2013 edition, the race organizers added an extra lap of 20 km. This has really opened up the race, giving opportunistic riders a fair chance of striking from afar. Roman Kreuziger did so two years ago, when he attacked over the top of Cauberg heading out on the final lap. The most likely scenario remains that it all comes down to Cauberg but the riders now know there is a real possibility to take the favorites by surprise and keep the peloton at bay.
On the last lap, the riders face Geulhemmerberg (1 km / avg. 5.8 %) with 16.5 km to go and then Bemelerberg (900 m / avg. 7 %) with just 7.8 km left. Even though these climbs most definitely will leave their mark in the legs of the riders before reaching Cauberg for the last time, they won’t be crucial for the final outcome. Usually, the peloton flies up these ascents, taking back a lot of time on possible breakaways. We may also see some attacks on Bemelerberg by riders of the teams who would be working in the peloton otherwise. If a team like BMC sends out a rider on Bemelerberg, they can sit back and let the teams of the other favorites sacrifice their riders in order to catch the break. Much like they did in Brabantse Pijl this week. It will be extremely difficult to distance the peloton and keep the gap on Cauberg though.
When you say Cauberg, you have to say Philippe Gilbert. Nobody in the peloton has been more successful on this climb than Gilbert. He has won Amstel Gold Race three times already (2010, 2011 & 2014) and he won the World Championships here in 2012 as well. Few can match his kick on these kinds of hills and since Gilbert is also very strong on his own and fast on the line, he’s definitely the man to beat today. In Brabantse Pijl, he proved to be in very good condition. BMC sends a strong to support him. Last year, Samuel Sanchez launched a furious attack at the bottom of Cauberg. The other favorites chased him down immediately but they forgot to keep an eye on Gilbert. Big mistake! At the other side of the road, Gilbert easily went clear and soloed away to win. The strong Belgian usually attacks at the same place on Cauberg. Everybody knows this but somehow he never has anybody in this wheel when he moves. Something to think about for the other favorites…
Since the race organizers decided to move up the finishing line 1800 meters, Alejandro Valverde has always been fighting for the win. He finished 2nd in 2013, 4th in 2014 and 3rd at the World Championships in 2012. Clearly, this finish suits the Spaniard. However, he still hasn’t found the right formula on how to win the race. In theory, he shouldn’t have problems following the moves on Cauberg. Unfortunately, he always seems to start the climb too far down. It costs him too much energy to join the front, which leaves him empty when it really counts. If Movistar can position Alejandro Valverde on the right wheel when starting on Cauberg, he should be able to follow the attacks and then use his fast finish to secure another podium place.
The same can be said for Michal Kwiatkowski. The strong Pole finished 4th in 2013 and 5th last year. He’s not as explosive as the best puncheurs but he’s not far off. If there is a moment of hesitating at the top of Cauberg, Kwiatkowski will join the front - if he’s not there already - and most likely attack. He’s an excellent time trialist. If gets just a tiny gap on the last flat part, it will be extremely difficult to catch him before the line. Despite a very good start to the season, Michal Kwiatkowski still hasn’t won wearing the rainbow jersey. Don’t be surprised if he does this Sunday!
Many might consider Michael Matthews an outsider for Amstel Gold Race. Personally, I see him as one of the favorites. This is a very important race for the Australian. He’s leading Orica GreenEdge this year and he’s in great shape. Matthews has only done four races this year. However, he has either won or made podium in all of them. He won a stage in Paris-Nice, finished 3rd in Milano-San Remo, won the opening stage of Vuelta al Pais Vasco and finished 2nd in Brabantse Pijl. He has worked hard to improve on the climbs and it’s paying off. He followed Peter Sagan on Poggio in Milano-San Remo giving the impression that he was on an easy Sunday ride. Cauberg is much steeper and this will be his biggest test so far. Last year, he started on the climb in a perfect position but faded when the strong attacks begun. In peak condition, his teammate Simon Gerrans is strong contender as well. However, Gerrans is still not strong enough to fight for the win after his injuries earlier this season. He’s on team duty today. Gerrans’ job is to make sure that Matthews starts on Cauberg in best position and then preferably chase down the attacks in order to set up Bling for the sprint. In this field, I don’t see anybody faster than Michael Matthews if it comes down to a sprint finish.
Given this is the biggest Dutch race on the calendar, naturally, we should keep an eye on the Dutch riders. To me, their best chance of success is Tom Dumoulin. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Dumoulin put in a very impressive performance in the final time trial. Despite an insanely steep finish, Dumoulin still managed to beat the best climbers. This proves that he’s in great shape. Last year, Tom Dumoulin was my outsider pick. Instead of waiting for Cauberg, Dumoulin joined one of the attacks on the last lap. This probably cost him his chances of making a good result. He finished 20th. It’s not an easy line to walk for the Giant-Alpecin captain though. He’s not explosive enough to follow the best puncheurs and, even though he’s fast on the line, he’s not fast enough to beat guys like Matthews and Valverde. He probably has to attack from afar, but it also means taking a big risk of getting caught and left to dry when the top favorites start attacking on Cauberg. It will be very interesting to see how Dumoulin balances this task. For other Dutchmen with a chance of making a good result today, look to Tom-Jelte Slagter, Wout Poels, Bauke Mollema and Wilco Kelderman.
Katusha has had a great run lately. The Russian team has won or made podium in almost all the big races this spring. For this race, they have a very potent quartet of Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, Alexandr Kolobnev, Giampaolo Caruso and Dani Moreno. Purito was exceptional in Vuelta al Pais Vasco last week, winning two stages and taking the overall win as well. Crashes have ruined his chances in Amstel in recent years. If he can avoid any bad luck, he’ll be a very dangerous outsider. Purito is one of the best riders in the world on these short and steep hills. However, in a flat sprint he won’t stand a chance against Matthews, Gilbert, Valverde and Kwiatkowski. He has to make the gap on Cauberg and then hope it’s enough to stay clear. His good friend and loyal teammate Dani Moreno also has a fair chance of winning this race. Like Purito, Moreno is very strong on the punchy climbs. On his best days, nobody drops him. Furthermore, Moreno is very fast on the line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Purito setting up Moreno for the win this Sunday. Winning Amstel Gold Race is a big achievement but for Purito, the main goal this spring is Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
For other punchy riders who are fast on the line in a reduced sprint, look to Tony Gallopin, Daniel Martin, Diego Ulissi, Davide Rebellin, Enrico Gasparotto and in-shape Fabio Felline. I doubt Rui Costa will be far off either. Jelle Vanendert has done very well in Amstel Gold Race in the past. However, the Belgian has shown no signs that indicates he should be in good enough shape to compete for the win this year.
In case a late breakaway manages to keep the peloton at bay, look to opportunistic riders like Tim Wellens, Vincenzo Nibali and Greg Van Avermaet.
My personal super joker for Amstel Gold Race this year is Michael Valgren. The Danish champion gets a rare chance to lead Tinkoff-Saxo in one of the big races. Former winner Roman Kreuziger is on the team as well but he’s mainly preparing himself for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. This means Valgren now has a unique opportunity to prove his incredible talent. He’s in a good shape right now and he knows this is a race that suits him very well. Even though he’s young, the long distance is not a problem for him. Don’t forget that Valgren came very close to taking the whole world by surprise and winning the rainbow jersey last year. He won’t be able to follow the big favorites if he waits for the final but he has proved that he’s not afraid of attacking. Like Kreuziger did in 2013, Valgren has to take matters into his own hands and attack from afar. It’s a tall order, especially for a rider who’s only been on the World Tour for one year. Still, I wouldn’t put it past Michael Valgren to win Amstel Gold Race this Sunday and give his team a much needed success story.