Michał Kwiatkowski wins the sprint to take the Amstel Gold Race, checking he’s got the better of Michael Matthews while Cauberg attacker Philippe Gilbert has already been tamed and beaten.
The early break was notable for two things. First the presence of Lotto-Jumbo’s Timo Roosen, because if the team had missed the move you sense they’d have been forced to bring it back in order to try again; second Mike Tepstra was there, the Roompot rider isn’t Niki’s twin but they’re look-a-likes. Despite no obvious threats the move was never allowed to get much time with BMC Racing and Movistar doing a lot of the tempo-setting, with BMC’s Marcus Burghardt notable for a lot of work. As ever on the small roads crashes took their toll, notably Lieuwe Westra. While if a rider punctured they could often get back to the bunch ok, it was moving back to the front of the peloton that was the hard part.
With the early fugitives’s advantage almost over IAM’s David Tanner took off with Simon Clarke (Orica-Greenedge) and the pair were joined by others, at first Alex Howes (Cannondale Garmin), Diego Rosa (Astana), Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) and Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing) and Wilco Kelderman (Lotto-Jumbo) and none other than Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Kelderman soon overcooked a corner, riding into a ploughed field and suffered the extra misfortune of it all being live on TV, the cameras dwelling on his chasse patate effort for domestic reasons.
Then another crash and things got tactical because Diego Rosa and Damiano Caruso were out. It meant Nibali had no team mate to work for him. That said Rosa’s contribution wasn’t certain given Nibali complained about his selfish riding in the Strade Bianche. Crucially BMC Racing went from having a rider up the road to having to chase and the move’s 50 second advantage began to fall. This was vintage “one day Nibali”, the rider who enlivens a race with some big moves but goes too early to win. He duly attacked and took three others but as they crossed the finish line for the final loop their lead was slender. Simon Clarke took off, presumably not to win but to force other teams to chase and let his colleagues sit tight. Then the race was neutralised by the headwind, the wide roads meant nobody could get away and if Jacob Fuglsang tried, he was marked by Greg Van Avermaet.
The race dropped into Valkenberg. Gilbert’s imminent attack on the Cauberg wasn’t so much telegraphed in advance as engraved in a stone tablet, the Cauberg is to Gilbert as the Taaienberg is to Tom Boonen. BMC Racing deployed the same tactic as last year sending a rider up the road at the start of the climb. Last year it Samuel Sanchez, this time it was Ben Hermans. It forced others to chase and then Gilbert jumped, deploying that devastating acceleration. It was Michael Matthews who chased, the worst of moves and the best of moves.
The best because Matthews must be in excellent shape to follow when nobody else could but the worst because it put him into oxygen debt and he’d pay a punitive price in the finish. Gilbert didn’t look as incisive as he was unable to pull out a big gap but this was also the story of Michał Kwiatkowski who set off in pursuit, passing others on the climb and then trying to ride across. He didn’t make it but his effort too others in his wake. Valverde jumped passed, others followed and Kwiatkowski had a breather. A few flourishes on the way to the line but they were pulled back. Kwiatkowski’s sprint looked relaxed, he overtook the others in the manner of a prudent motorist passing a truck: pulling out and the putting his foot down. But the lack of dynamism reflected fatigue, the 250km and the Cauberg effort earlier.
A worthy winner who not only proved the fastest in the sprint, he was one of the strongest on the Cauberg too. This wasn’t a sneaky win but a show of force. But in measuring the contribution to the effort, we’re left reviewing the final three kilometres of the race. Once the early breakaway was reeled in there there was action from Vincenzo Nibali but no move managed to take a minute, this was a nervous and compact race.
The race route could do with a change. After borrowing so many narrow and steep climbs the race heads to Valkenberg, climbs the Cauberg and then uses large, wide open roads in a final loop before returning to Cauberg. It makes the racing stale, if a rider wants to win with an attack they need, say, 20 seconds at the foot of the Cauberg to stave off the chase up the hill. But getting this on open roads, especially if the wind is against them, is near-impossible. Consequently there’s a tactical lock-down. The Cauberg and the run to the line are fine but what if they just scrapped the final circuit and its wide roads?
“He’s a good rider but he doesn’t win often”
Who said that earlier this week? None other than Patrick “le sévère” Lefevere. Normally prone to loyal defence of his riders – see his criticism of Ian Stannard after the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – the Belgian boss factually correct but a touch harsh with his rider, still only 24. Kwiatkowski has had five second places this season and just one win, the Paris-Nice prologue. Kwiatkowski is now the fourth reigning world champion to win after Eddy Merckx, Jan Raas and Bernard Hinault, select company. Best of all for Lefevere, Etixx-Quick Step get that big spring classic win they’ve been looking for and seeing how strong Kwiatkowski was in the finish he must be a top pick for Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the prime pick for next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
As for the others… Valverde was predictably beaten in the sprint, he didn’t have the power here but will be a top choice for the hillier Ardennes. BMC rode a very good race and Gilbert was very fast up the Cauberg too, it’s just the others were on to him. After last Sunday’s hype Team Sky were almost invisible but Sergio Henao is ideal to win the Flèche Wallonne. Rui Costa, Tony Gallopin were the best of the rest with neo-pro Julian Alaphilippe in seventh. Meanwhile that’s probably it for Michael Matthews as the Ardennes are surely too hilly.