The Spin: Amstel Gold Race Preview

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Amstel Gold Race

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.


The Route

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.

The Roads
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.

Amstel Gold Race

As wild as it gets. Look closely at the neat gutter as even the country roads are orderly.

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 Finish
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.

Cauberg profile

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.

The Contenders
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?

The Scenario
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.

The Weather
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.

TV
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.

As usual there will be pirate internet video feeds for viewers around the world. See cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv.

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.

History
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
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.

toestrap April 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm

“hidden in the UCI rulebook is an upper limit to the permissible alcohol content for a sponsor”
Brilliant!
Is there anything the UCI rulebook doesn’t cover?

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm

It caused problems earlier this year as a cognac company wanted to sponsor a race in South Africa but this was not allowed. Here’s the actual rule:

1.2.030 Without prejudice of the applicable law, no brand of tobacco, spirits, pornographic products bis or any other products that might damage the image of the UCI or the sport of cycling in general shall be associated directly or indirectly with a licence-holder, a UCI team or a national or international cycling competition.
As defined in the present article, a spirit is a beverage with a content in alcohol of 15% or more.

GluteCramp April 13, 2013 at 8:28 am

What’s the bet Pat or Hein made some money out of including that rule? It’s possible that Amstel was behind it even…

Vitus April 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm

As long as the innocent saints of pharma industries, environment polluting mining companies or investment frauder^^^ehhhh bankers are no problem for the “moral” likes of the UCI, everything will be fine. Amen

Igam Ogam April 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I know it’s picky but the Netherlands is around the 5th most densely populated country in Europe (if you don’t include dependencies and Bailiwicks). OK the other countries are small states but Monaco tops everywhere in the world with 16,932 bods per km² and Vatican City, Malta, the Republic of San Marino all beat the Low Countries.

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Pickiness is welcome but I left out these microstates as they’re not comparable, Monaco is really a town on the side of a cliff. I just wanted to explain how when you ride in the Netherlands you’re always near buildings, people, towns etc.

Igam Ogam April 23, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Apologies, I see your point. Monaco is a horrible place anyway.

Bisiklet Sporu April 12, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Wasn’t Sagan third last year after Gasparotto and Vanendert?

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm

You’re quite right.

Bisiklet Sporu April 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Thanks a lot for the piece. I think within the Scenario paragraph Sagan’s still mentioned as second, you also might want to update that bit. My two picks are Sagan and Valverde.

Espresso April 12, 2013 at 4:20 pm

“In all the one day races he’s finished this year he’s either come first or second”
That’s a great stat

yrck April 12, 2013 at 4:32 pm

:-) the name of the town is ‘Valkenburg’, not ‘Valkenberg’

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks, it must be the hills that makes me think of bergs.

STB April 12, 2013 at 4:50 pm

As always an interesting and in depth preview. I think moving the finish line could make the finish more exciting as I expect a climber or two to charge up the hill and then have to hang on as a gaggle of sprinters close them down in the last kilometer. Could be fun….

The population density comparison is interesting. Whilst the UK average may be 246 this includes vastly different areas from the sparsely populated northern areas of England and Scotland, to the dense population around London and the South East of England. The leafy lanes of Surrey, home to Box Hill, has a density of 683 kmsq. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_counties

EDnl April 12, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Sure, but the Netherlands has regional differences as well. The province of Utrecht is comparable in size and leafiness to Surrey and has a pop. density of 898 /km2. (Third most densely populated province behind North- and South-Holland.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provinces_of_the_Netherlands

Ben April 12, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Really enjoyed that – thanks, very informative!

DMW April 12, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Maybe it’s lack of history but this race never quite does it for me, feels like you only need to watch the last 10 minutes.

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 5:16 pm

That’s been true but the finish this year could be different, it’ll force the climbers to go earlier and now means the race is a bit more unique rather than just one of three uphill finishes we get in the next week.

EDnl April 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Traditionally it’s interesting from the Eyserbosweg climb. It’s where supercharged punchers like Boogerd and Rebellin used to jump and make the first selection.

pottssteve April 12, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Agreed. It may lack excitement some years, but it is one of the best races to watch live. It’s quite easy to catch the riders at the same location 3 or 4 times or, if you have a bike, to cut corners and catch up with them multiple times.
The move of the finish is not just a cynical move to get more VIPs in. In fact, the organisers are laying on a free public tent with music and big screens, and there is also public access to some of the finishing straight via a gallery. Many of the people involved in Amstel also worked at last year’s Worlds and it became clear that the Vilt site is much better suited in terms of logistics and space. The Cauberg will still be rammed, though!

Steve

cthulhu April 13, 2013 at 2:59 am

“it is one of the best races to watch live. It’s quite easy to catch the riders at the same location 3 or 4 times or, if you have a bike, to cut corners and catch up with them multiple times.”
My saying for years now…I love this race, unfortunately I am going to miss it the second time in a row. :/

ChrisRW April 12, 2013 at 5:09 pm

CAnt believe I booked a holiday over te Ardennes classics weeks.

Thank goodness I’ll be spending it in a bike. Another informative and exciting preview – cant wait to see how the peloton deals with Sagan.

noel April 12, 2013 at 5:47 pm

sorry if I missed it – what is the total metres climbed in the race pls?

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 5:50 pm

The figure’s not in the road book but a press release from January said about 4,000 metres

EDnl April 12, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Same figure at http://www.amstel.nl/evenementen/amstelgoldrace/wedstrijd/route but it’s a bit suspect at such a round number. Seems like a stab in the dark.

pottssteve April 12, 2013 at 6:57 pm

4000m of climbing is about right. If you have the time and energy you can do the maths using http://www.hardfietsen.nl, which lists all the climbs, big and small, in the Netherlands and beyond.

Even if it’s short of 4km, riding around here is draining (I live in Limburg). Constant rise and fall, always looking for the right gear. Short, sharp climbs with a few longer drags – it’s tiring. It’s also a pretty long race. Recent weather reports suggest a F4 southerly wind, which is most sapping up on the plateau above Valkenburg where much of the race is run. There isn’t much cover in places.

Looking forward to it!

Steve

Dave R April 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Your top photo with the first four finishers in 2012…how many of you were rooting for Oscar to hold that slender gap he created right to the finish?

guille April 12, 2013 at 8:36 pm

me!

Dan Forester April 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Looking forward to seeing what Nacer Bouhanni can do, and will be keeping an eye on Quintana too. Fingers crossed for Gilbert in the top spot.

Cam H April 12, 2013 at 6:49 pm

degenkolb would be in the fight if he was racing. he was forth at worlds last year.

not sure why he isn’t there?

Sam April 12, 2013 at 6:57 pm

TBH he’s looked a bit out of sorts all season so far, not really firing

The Inner Ring April 12, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I don’t know either. He’s on Argos-Shimano’s long list for the Giro so could be resting before resuming racing.

If you’re a fan here’s a nice video of him as part of Shimano’s “Believe” campaign
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIkdynxXUOk

AK April 12, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Nice preview. Interesting tidbit may be that a lot of the road furniture is actually designed to protect cyclists. But once you take away all the cars and start riding in a big fast peleton, it comes back to bite you!

Richard Pasco April 12, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Outstanding article as usual :)

Hard to see past Sagan with the new finish for me. If he doesn’t take a classic this year, has he had a “bad” season?!

AK April 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

I don’t really get this comment, btw
‘Sponsoring a bike race doesn’t quite sit with the rest of Amstel’s often edgy marketing as the brand tries to get noticed.’ Edgy marketing? It might be different in other countries, but here in the Netherlands Amstel is mostly marketed as a beer for Regular Joe. Sports sponsoring is definitely part of their standard marketing. E.g. the national football cup (comparable to FA cup in England) was called Amstel Cup for years. Don’t forget cycling is mainstream sports in NL.

The Inner Ring April 13, 2013 at 11:13 pm

I’d seen ads of people in beach clothes sitting on ski lifts and other pictures suggest contrast and amusement, it wasn’t “this is a fine beer” but more trying to link it to lifestyle etc. But I’ll take your word for the image of “Regular Joe” in the Netherlands.

Tricky Dicky April 12, 2013 at 11:10 pm

A former pro who used to be at the pointy end of this race a number of times reckoned it was one of the hardest races, not just because of the needless traffic furniture but also because of the constant changes of pace. Accelerate up a hill, 90 degree turn, change of wind, FULL GAS. Made a break? Who’s with me? The peloton sprints back on. 5-10 riders are dropped. Rinse and repeat. He hated it.

The Inner Ring April 13, 2013 at 11:14 pm

That’s it, it the change of pace and the further back you are, the more the accordion stretches and energy is wasted. Selection often via the back of the bunch rather than riders attacking from the front.

Gowlett April 14, 2013 at 7:11 am

Hi, apols if this has been covered before but watching the classics this season I’ve been curious as to the history of the big effigies of people at side of the road. Any ideas?

The Inner Ring April 14, 2013 at 9:54 am

It’s part of the local folklore where every spring there is a carnival and they bring the giant figures. They’re called “Géants du Nord” or giants of the north. More in French at http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%A9ants_du_Nord

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