Giant crowds, 34 climbs and a brewery as race sponsor, what’s not to like about the Amstel Gold Race?
This is a different race to the ones we’ve seen in recent weeks. Born in 1966 it is the newest of the spring classics and one defined by suburban roads rather than medieval farm tracks. It marks a change in the season where stage race specialists compete alongside one day specialists. But some things remain constant: Peter Sagan is riding and it’s hard to look beyond him.
Here’s the preview with the riders, the route, the TV timings, beer, weather and more.
Most think the Netherlands is a flat country. They’re right, one quarter of the country sits below sea level. Still, look at the map above and you’ll notice that finger of land poking south. It’s here you find hills and the mighty Vaalserberg, at 322 metres above sea level it’s as high as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The route has evolved over the years and 2013 brings a big change. The finish line has been moved further up the road from the Cauberg climb, sharing the same finish as the 2012 World Championships in Valkenburg. The race will pass the finish line three times during the day before a final charge to the line.
Otherwise the tradition continues with the start in Maastricht and then the race seeks out every slope possible during the 251.8km course. In total there are 34 climbs but some of these are repeated. Individually each of the 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% and comes with 30km to go. It’s the accumulation of these climbs is something else, they become very selective after five hours of racing.
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 394 people per square km. In second place comes Belgium (344 per km²) and Holland is more than 50% more dense than third placed Britain (246 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 brake 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 the bunch stretches like an accordion with everyone 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 race climbs the Cauberg, 1500m long and 4.7% but with steeper earlier sections maxing at 12% and then passes the finish line and carries on to copy the circuit used at the Worlds last year, using the Bemelerberg (1.3km at 3%, a short moment at 6%) before descending to Valkenburg to start the Cauberg again.
Crucially the finish line is no longer at the top of the Cauberg but a further 1.8km along the road and the same spot it was on the Worlds meaning the finish becomes less about climbing and more about sprinting. Will this dull the race? Is this a corporate grab to sell VIP tickets for the finish line grandstand seats? That remains to be seen but it should be welcomed in the context of the upcoming races where the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège already have uphill finishes.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is the prime pick. He was
second third last year… but admitted a mistake with his gearing. More recently he won Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl in an invincible manner, personally closing down late attacks whilst towing a group of riders and then dropped them all before beating Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) in the sprint. Sagan’s weakness is the team, Moreno Moser is useful foil but the others, all loyal helpers, are unlikely to be present in the last 20km.
Philippe Gilbert was beaten but second place on Wednesday but his return to the podium was notable. He’s getting better each day but the new finish suits Saga even more, he’ll have to take a flyer like he did last year in the worlds.
Beyond these two riders comes a very wide list. A lot of the contenders for this race have not been competing in recent weeks but doing training blocks so the form guide is patchy. With the displaced finish line we need to pick someone who can cope with the climb and then win the sprint: Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) is the obvious choice but we need to be sure he’s riding and the official start list is not out yet.
Last year’s winner Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) has hit a truck in training this week but rides. Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenedge) has been on the podium before and comes with a strong team where Michael Albasini, Simon Clarke, Daryl Impey, Michael Matthews and Peter Weening are each long range outsiders.
Local hopes rest on Tom Jelte Slagter of Blanco who will hope to repeat the powerful display from Willunga Hill in the Tour Down Under. If not, Bauke Mollema is their hope although he’s a consistent racer rather than a proven winner, defined by his Vuelta points jersey from 2011.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are probably more suited for the upcoming Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Movistar come with a good team, Nairo Quintana is a late addition and Rui Costa is back to winning ways. A win seems unlikely but Argos-Shimano’s Simon Geschke was fifth in the Brabantse Pijl and a consistently good rider, the same for Vacansoleil-DCM’s Bjorn Leukemans. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) should bring entertainment value. Few will cite Nacer Bouhanni but it’s said the FDJ rider is light enough to pass the climbs.
Radioshack can almost put their feet up after a successful classics season but Tony Gallopin is one to watch. No rest for Team Sky, for all the efforts in the cobbled classics, what if Edvald Boasson Hagen proves he’s better when there’s more climbing? He’s won Alpine stages of the Tour de France and was second in the worlds last year. He’s backed up by Sergio Henao, the punchiest of the new Colombian generation. Omega Pharma-Quickstep are still after that classics win and Peter Velits looks their best bet but Michał Kwiatkowski is good for a long range move whilst the finish is ideal for Gianni Meersman.
There are so many more longshots, there’s no point naming many more. Take your pick from many more, you might like Ulissi, Betancur or Hesjedal but how can they beat Peter Sagan?
It’s hard to run a scenario without Peter Sagan winning:
- In all the one day races he’s finished this year he’s either come first or second
- He can cope with the repeated climbs as last year’s third place shows.
- The course change suits him even more this year because of the flatter approach to the finish line thwarts the climbers
If last year’s race was repeated on this year’s course he’d toast Gasparotto. Therefore others have to deploy tactics similar to the “anti-Cancellara” moves where teams send riders up the road to anticipate the Slovak’s sprint. Easier said than done but the Amstel is a hard race to control, there are not many long drags for a team tow the peloton. Everyone will expect Cannondale to work and Sagan could be isolated in the last hour. The podium is often a surprise with a new cast of riders emerging.
Sunny with temperatures reaching 20°C (68°F), a first for northern Europe this year. Spring has come late and you can see it in the still barren trees and fields and riders with pale legs. There will be a breeze of 15-20km/h coming from the south-east, some climbs are exposed but more wind is needed to cause trouble.
There will be three hours of live TV coverage. Local coverage starts at 2.00pm Euro time whilst Eurosport go on air 30 minutes later. The action is normally concentrated in the final hour and the finish is expected for 4.30pm.
Flat out in the Netherlands
The Netherlands might sit in northern Europe and find its landscape and climate defined by the North Sea but the Limburg province of the Netherlands is unique with its hills and milder climate. In other words what you seen on TV is very different from the rest of the country.
Talk of Dutch cycling on here usually means Blanco, Vacansoleil-DCM or Argos-Shimano but the country is famous for cycling as transport as well as sport. No other country in the world uses the bicycle as much for travel. The car remains the most popular mode of transport but the bike is not far behind and the average Dutch citizen rides 909km a year.
But the pro cycling subset is suffering. Yes the country has three World Tour teams but Blanco is hunting for a sponsor and Vacansoleil is deciding whether to stop too. Some rationalisation is reasonable but it could mark a big change. It’s hard not to see a wider decline. Once Dutch riders were a real force winning grand tours, classics and more but these days globalisation has diluted this dominance. The best rider on the CQ Rankings is Lars Boom in 23rd place.
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.
Amstel is a brand of beer belonging to the giant Heineken company (Morreti, Murphy’s, Tiger, Żywiec etc) and comes from Amsterdam. On the day the giant crowds seem have spent the afternoon sampling the beverage and there’s a lively vibe.
The company brews this beer in the Netherlands but also in the Caribeean island of Curacao where every year and after-season race is run for fun and pros pose with dolphins. Wine and beer sponsors are welcome in cycling but hidden in the UCI rulebook is an upper limit to the permissible alcohol content for a sponsor, capped at 16% meaning no spirits.
Sponsoring a bike race doesn’t quite sit with the rest of Amstel’s often edgy marketing as the brand tries to get noticed. But as the image above from marketing website Brandfreak.com shows, cycling is used as part of the marketing.