This is a very different race to the ones we’ve seen in recent weeks. Born in 1966 it is the newest of the spring classics and defined by suburban roads instead of medieval farm tracks. It marks a change in the season where stage race specialists compete alongside one day specialists.
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 but 2014 is the same as 2013 and includes the displaced finish further up the road from the Cauberg climb. 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 251km 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. It’s neither legendary nor romantic but for the a rider it’s equally dangerous.
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 resembles an endless suburbia, a street furniture catalogue. 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.
Crest a hill and as you can see above the bunch is lined out, it’s hard to move up a few places on the descent and harder still to pass on the narrow climbs. 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 to pass the finish line, descend and then climb the Bemelerberg (1.3km at 3%, a short moment at 6%) before descending to Valkenburg to start the Cauberg again and then 1.8km to the line.
Alejandro Valverde is the prime pick. Second last year and the course suits him well. But he’s been riding a peak of form since mid-February and one that’s seen him race hard and often and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain it until now. He’s been going hard at it for a long time, witness his efforts in the Strade Bianche and the following day’s win in Roma Maxima. But all this is testimony to his versatility and the Amstel course is ideal.
Is Philippe Gilbert back to his best? No. Sure he won the Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday but his golden 2011 season saw him winning regularly from February onwards and across all types of terrain. But he’s certainly back in business and confidence matters. Team mate Greg Van Avermaet took a hit in Paris-Roubaix but is said to have recovered and this is an ideal race for him too.
Michał Kwiatkowski showed good form in the Tour of the Basque Country and even scrapping for stage wins and places with some sprints. It looked a touch futile but it will have made him even sharper for this weekend’s race. He’s backed by Wout Poels who was climbing with the best in the Basque Country too.
Geraint Thomas continues his spring campaign. He made the front group to Roubaix which is worth plenty alone and here he’s got a course that’ll suit his lighter build. One dark horse is Sky’s Ben Swift. Faster than the rest in the Basque Country he’ll find the hills here to his advantage. I don’t think he can go with a lot of moves if the likes of Valverde and Gilbert start their work from a far but if a group of 20-30 riders is left he could well clean up.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenedge) has been on the podium before and comes with a strong team where Michael Matthews could win too. Don’t forget Damiano Cunego. The Little Prince is a former winner of this race and suddenly came out of exile in the Basque Country to remind many of his existence. Europcar have Thomas Voeckler as a wildcard to play and he’s coming into form now. They also have Yukiya Arashiro who seems as strong as he’s ever been while Bryan Coquard is going to play for the sprint but he might find the distance too long. Ag2r have Romain Bardet who first appeared in this race after going in the morning break in 2012 and surviving longer than the rest, now he’s aiming for success in the Ardennes; team mate Carlos Betancur has been ill and is said to be still riding into form.
Local hopes rest on Tom Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) but I think the punchy Dutchman’s better suited to racing the upcoming Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège instead of this flatter finish. The same applies to Belkin’s Bauke Mollema who is ably backed by Lars Petter Nordhaug. Giant-Shimano is a Dutch team but German rider Simon Geschke and Belgian Dries Devenyns are their best bets; they’re in form but rarely win.
Skipping back to Garmin-Sharp, Nathan Haas has been targetting this race, a result would be a huge leap in performance but he’s coming into form.
Last year’s winner Roman Kreuziger could do the double but he half sneaked away last year and this time he’ll be well-marked.
My dark horse is Nicolas Roche, 125-1 in the bookmakers but more than capable on a hilly circuit.
Some other riders of interest include Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali who’s meant to be building form for a mini-peak at the Tour de Romandie; he needs a win to ease some pressure and comes with a decent team with Lieuwe Westra and former Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto. Rui Costa’s had a string of second places this year and could be a useful tandem with Diego Ulissi, the Italian is the prototype rider for this course but his form’s unknown. Joaquim Rodriguez probably won’t find the race hilly enough but could be in the mix while Katusha team mate Alexander Kolobnev usually emerges at this time of year.
Wanty-Gobert’s Bjorn Leukemans is the form pick and a past top-10 finisher in this race but almost never wins anything. Finally Lotto-Belisol have Tony Gallopin, third in Brabant and all the more impressive because he had a late puncture and made it back. He’s got a fast finish but can he overcome the team’s bad luck?
|Michał Kwiatkowski, Philippe Gilbert|
|Greg Van Avermaet|
|Geraint Thomas, Simon Gerrans, Michael Matthews|
|Gallopin, Voeckler, Haas, Nordhaug, Swift, Kreuziger, Costa, Ulissi|
Damp and cool conditions. There will be rain showers and a top temperature of 17°C.
There will be three hours of live TV coverage. Local coverage starts from host broadcaster NOS starts at 1.15pm Euro time whilst Eurosport go on air with live images from 2.15pm onwards. The action is normally concentrated in the final hour and the finish is expected for 4.40pm.
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 a 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 Belkin and Giant-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 helped by excellent infrastructure – heated bike lanes – and the sheer banality of cycling. It’s what everyone does.
First run in 1966, this is the most 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 Heineken International, the world’s third largest brewer and owner of brands like Morreti, Murphy’s, Tiger, Żywiec and more. On the day the giant crowds seem have spent the afternoon sampling the beverage and there’s a lively vibe.