Giant crowds, 25 different climbs and a brewery as race sponsor, what’s not to like about the Amstel Gold Race?
That said this is a different race to the events we’ve seen in recent weeks. It is the most modern of the spring classics thanks to its relative youth as an event on the calendar but also one defined by suburban roads rather than medieval farm tracks. It also marks a change in the season where grand tour contenders compete alongside one day specialists.
Most think the Netherlands is a flat country. They’re right, one quarter of the country is below sea level. Still, look at the map above and you’ll notice the finger of land that pokes south to Maastricht and Heerlen, it’s here you find hills. The highest point of the country is the Vaalserberg, at just 322 metres above sea level: only as high as the Eiffel Tour in Paris.
The race starts in Maastricht but unlike the out-and-back Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it loops all over the place often repeating roads several times, for example there are 25 climbs but 31 ascensions given some are repeated. There’s even one small incursion into Belgium.
Individually each of the 25 climbs are not hard, typically a gradient of 5% over a kilometre although a few do have double-digit slopes and the Keutenberg, the nation’s steepest road, maxes at 22%. It’s the accumulation of these climbs is something else, they become very selective after five hours of racing.
Things really pick up after 200km when the race heads over the Cauberg and crosses the finish line but with a large loop remaining.
Sunday’s race is one of the most manic competitions of the year. Whilst the Tour of Flanders has its bergs and Paris-Roubaix has the pavé, the Amstel has… street furniture.
The Netherlands is Europe’s most densely-populated country with 393 people per square km. In second place comes Belgium (337 per km²) and Holland is more than 50% more dense than third placed Britain (244 per km²). Open space is at a premium and wilderness doesn’t exist. At times it feels like an endless suburbia where signs, lampposts and other items of street furniture clutter the roads. There are still pastures and open country… but not for long.
There are many traffic calming measures. These are designed make motorists slow down for fear of damaging their vehicle over a bump or into a bollard but in a race who wants to slow down? Consequently riders fight for position and those at the front of the bunch get an easy ride whilst behind everyone’s on the brakes and trying to peer ahead to spot obstacles. If you can stay upright, moving up places is very hard, if you’re at the back of the bunch you’re out of contention. The better you are going, the easier it is.
The organiser has tweaked the finish this year in order to bring the two last climbs closer together, a short cut if you like that is designed to spice up the finale of the race. The idea is more hills should tempt climbers to go on the rampage, knowing they don’t have to face a long flat section before the uphill finish. The penultimate climb is the Keutenberg for 1.7km it is 5% but the steep part at over 15%. No spectators are allowed on this part as the road is too small.
The Cauberg is the final climb of the day and the finish line is right at the top, on a false flat. It’s 1200m long and averages 5.8% but has steeper earlier sections maxing at 12%. It means riders have to go hard on the early part but the strongest riders can come past anyone who fades from powering an excessive big gear near the top. Given over 250km of racing before, if riders come to the finish together then the Cauberg always selects a worthy winner.
Note the giant crowds too. Many will have spent the afternoon sampling Amstel beer there’s a lively vibe.
Normally this would be the perfect race for Philippe Gilbert. Invincible this time last year, he seems invisible now.
Instead I see a trio of Spanish contenders. Alejandro Valverde is a prime contender, able to climb and sprint but he has not been racing much, a DNF in the Volta Catalunya. But he was second in the Klasika Primavera. Besides, he won in the Tour Down Under after two years without a race. Samuel Sanchez is the next pick, he is in top form after winning the Tour of the Basque Country and able to climb and descend with ease and he has a decent jump for a finish like the Cauberg. Then comes Joaquim Rodríguez who again is in strong form and can finish fast, although I think he might be better suited to next Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne race.
Peter Sagan should be a good pick but he’s hard to categorise. With his bulky build and tendency to win sprint finishes you’d think it’s too hilly. But his display in the Swiss Alps last summer was one of my highlights from 2011 and he seemed to be climbing effortlessly on the Brabantse Pijl before a crash took him out. Oscar Freire is another rider to watch, only you might not see him until the final 200 metres.
Simon Gerrans is back. He’s been on and off since the start of the year and has already landed a big result but he’s finished third last year and could well feature. Vincenzo Nibali is also back but hasn’t raced since Sanremo so he’s an unknown quantity, similar for Cadel Evans who could be fine tuning ahead of next Sunday’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Schleck brothers probably need some race miles too. Damiano Cunego is a pertually unknown quantity, always an exciting rider but often prone to collapse, not the sort of rider you’d bet on but the race suits him perfectly.
Thomas Voeckler is back in form, he was imperial in the Brabantse Pijl but I suspect he’ll be heavily marked come Sunday. Ryder Hesjedal always seems to finish well in this race. And let’s not forget the local riders. Rabobank are having a poor start to the season but Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema and (Dane) Matti Breschel could feature. Vacansoleil could upstage their wealthier rivals with Wout Poels and Johnny Hoogerland, although he’s often prone to premature attackulation, launching attacks too far from the finish that waste his strength.
But the list goes on. We have a mix of cobbled classics specialists grand tour riders going head to head, we could see Cadel Evans duking it out with Simon Gerrans, Joaquin Rodriguez taking on Matti Breschel.
The winner will collect €16,000.
A dispute by police officers over pay is threatening the race but it appears this will be resolved; if not the dispute then the race will proceed on Sunday.
Overcast. Fog will clear and the temperature will reach 11°C (52°F). The wind will blow from the North at 15 to 30 km/h which will be consequential to the race, enough to prompt additional fatigue and influence strategy in the final 50km.
There will be three hours of live TV coverage starting at 2.00pm Euro time but Eurosport will be starting at 3.00pm which suggests the international feed might only be for the last two hours. That is fine since the action is normally concentrated in the final hour anyway.
First run in 1966, this is the modest modern of the spring classics. Home rider Jan Raas has the most wins with five whilst Eddy Merckx, Gerrie Knetemann, Rolf Järmann and Philippe Gilbert are all tied on two wins. The event took a while to get going and has only recently grown in stature and prestige. In years past it came the weekend after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a last chance beer drinking saloon for classics riders trying to salvage the early season but since then it has moved, joined the World Tour and is a fine event in its own right. It is organised by ex pro Leon Van Vliet.
Lastly remember the Worlds are being held in the area later this year and they will use the Cauberg for the finish, only the finish will after the climb, riders must ride on for about a kilometre to reach the line.