The classics come to the Netherlands and huge crowds enjoy a day in the sun and beer from the race sponsor. The hilly course has been for the climbers but several sprinters want to muscle in. Here’s a race preview with the usual look at the course, contenders, TV times and more.
The Route: 248km and apparently more than 4,000m of vertical gain, impressive for a day’s racing in the Netherlands. It’s all packed into a narrow area and having the route loaded on a GPS device can help racers know which way to turn as the race twists and turns across the Limburg province, including a brief visit into Belgium.
In total there are 34 climbs, some repeated. Individually each of the climbs are not hard, typically a gradient of 5% for 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. If one hill climb is fine, 34 hill reps hurt. The vertical gain adds up but it’s the fight to be at the front that really takes its toll, these are narrow climbs that string out the field. Anyone badly placed will waste energy trying to get back up and so they’ll start the next climb in a worse way and so begins the vicious cycle that ruins their chances. All this is made harder by a course that twists past so much street furniture; imagine a race inside an Ikea store if you like.
The Finish: the race climbs the Cauberg, 1500m long and 4.7% but with steeper earlier sections maxing at 12% and passes the finish line. It then descends and climbs the Bemelerberg (1.3km at 3%, a brief moment at 6%) before the high speed drop into Valkenburg to start the Cauberg again and then 1.8km to the line.
The Scenario: a hilly race that should reward attackers and those who can climb well to be up at the front and out of danger up, over and down the climbs the Amstel has become a sprint contest in recent years with the race winning move often only happening on the last time up the Cauberg. Several teams come with their uphill sprinters and few riders can escape their clutches.
Michael Matthews is the prime pick for his ability to get over the climbs and win the sprint from the surviving group. Last year he was so confident he tried to match Philippe Gilbert up the Cauberg but the pair were reeled in and beaten. Now Matthews is likely to sit tight for the sprint and can count on a strong team. Simon Gerrans a contender too, three times on the podium here before and he’s had two top-three finishes in the recent Tour of the Basque Country. Orica-Greenedge can play the Gerrans card on the Cauberg and Matthews for the sprint. Obvious? Yes but this is the kind of finish where power matters more than anything else, there’s no great need to bluff and feint. Adam Yates, Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini bring more options as outsiders but will surely work for the two top leaders.
Michał Kwiatkowski is the “defending champion” although in cycling you can never defend a title, once the starting gun is fired there is no advantage to protect. Kwiatkowski is in good form and if anything the question is how long can he stay his way? He was the best on the Cauberg last year and then cleaned up in the sprint and a repeat looks entirely possible again. Team Sky have more options with Sergio Henao and Peter Kennaugh who should be made for a race like this, see his win in the Dauphiné last year, Lars Petter Nordhaug often seems to thrive in this race and Ben Swift is a sprinter who can do these climbs on a good day too and Wout Poels is an outside chance too.
Philippe Gilbert has won this race three times and become world champion on the Cauberg thanks to his trademark uphill attack where he drowns his rivals in lactic acid. He’s been in good form and usually pops up to win around this time of year, especially as he’s in contract talks right now. However an altercation with a car on a training ride has been a big distraction, there’s a fractured finger which must hurt and police statements to give which must tire. Now 33 we’ll see if he’s still got that attack which he’ll surely deploy on the Cauberg. Ben Hermans and Samuel Sanchez will help set up his moves and watch to see if Loic Vliegen can impress too.
Etixx-Quickstep come with a strong team but no pressure to control the race: what a difference a week or two makes. Petr Vakoč has just won the Brabantse Pijl in a very obvious display of power helped by the resurgent Julian Alaphilippe who has put a long bout of mononucleosis behind him but can both deliver a result after 240km, the Czech is untested and the Frenchman lacks racing so there are doubts but this is there chance before Dan Martin arrives to lead in the Ardennes races. Bob Jungels could feature too.
Lotto-Soudal have a lot of good riders but how can they unlock the race? Tim Wellens, Tony Gallopin, Jelle Vanendert and Tiesj Benoot all have the potential to go on the attack but they’ll find it hard if not impossible to stay away. Watch out for Jelle Vanendert for his curious ability to shine during the Ardennes week and then vanish from the results for most of the year.
Who’s fetching the bottles at Astana? They bring a stacked team with a lot of options. Fabio Aru rides but has yet to look in sparkling form. Alexey Lutsenko is a dark horse, give him a small advantage and it’s very hard to pull back while Luis Leon Sanchez,Diego Rosa, Andrey Grivko and Dario Cataldo can all have their day. Poor Laurens de Vreese will have his work cut out.
Russian rivals Katusha have a harder time. As measured by the time taken to get in the top-10 in a race leader Joaquim Rodriguez has had his slowest start to the season since 2002… when he was a neo-pro and he’ll surely be riding ahead of the Ardennes classics the following week.
Bryan Coquard will be looking to track Michael Matthews and surprise in the sprint, it’s what he did in the Brabantse Pijl the other day. He’s a sprinter who weighs 58kg so can float over the hills and surge in the sprint but will he have the ability to do this after 250km? He wasn’t far off the front in the E3 Harelbeke until a mechanical got the better of him and he’ll lack team support to drop him off.
Rui Costa has been looking good this season but as ever he seems to feature during a race but very rarely wins and how can he win atop the Cauberg given the opposition? It’s why he was fourth last year, so close but hard to see him climbing higher in a sprint. The same for Diego Ulissi and both are a better prospect for Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Giant-Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin isn’t just Dutch, he’s from the race’s region and finally gets to show himself in front of home fans and will be the local hope and if the team ride under a German flag this still feels like a home race for them. Warren Barguil‘s form is improving and he’s bound to attack while Simon Geschke has often shown well in this race.
Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema brings some punchy climbing . He’s got Fabio Felline as back-up, a sprint dark horse. Continuing the Dutch theme Lotto-Jumbo race at home with Wilco Kelderman as the leader, strong in the Tour of the Basque Country and there’s Robert Gesink for the climbs too. Talking of Dutchmen Cannondale have yet to make people rush out and want to buy a Cannondale so far this season but local rider Tom-Jelte Slagter is suited to this race with its punchy climbs; Simon Clarke seems to be thriving since joining the team too and is fast out of a small group.
Movistar leave out Alejandro Valverde and bring a strong squad with several capable riders. Giovanni Visconti is a candidate for a late attack while J-J Lobato will hope to be there for a sprint, the Spaniard has had a quiet start to the season so far with few wins than expected.
* Can Edvald Boasson Hagen win? Yes and he could surge in the sprint but there’s been talk of adding weight and bulking up for the classics so he could find it harder to match them up the Cauberg.
Finally Bardiani-CSF’s Sonny Colbrelli is beginning to get results again and sprints well in a race like this, Nippo-Vini Fantini bring Damiano Cunego but Marko Kump could be there and among the wildcard invitations Enrico Gasparotto is perhaps the strongest pick, in form thanks to his recent podium place in the Brabantse Pijl and experienced as he’s won the race in 2012 too but is better suited to the old uphill sprint atop the Cauberg.
|Michał Kwiatkowski, Simon Gerrans|
|Philippe Gilbert, Julian Alaphilippe, Petr Vakoč, Tony Gallopin|
|Bryan Coquard, Tim Wellens, Wilco Kelderman|
|Barguil, Colbrelli, Boasson Hagen, Yates, Gasparotto,
Weather: sunshine and clouds with a top temperature of 13°C. A light breeze of 15km/h from the north-west means a headwind after the top of the Cauberg which suits the wheelsuckers more than the attackers.
History: first run in 1966 to promote Amstel Gold beer, this is the 51st edition of the race – spare the Rebellin jokes – and yet this is still seen as a modern race, a newbie classic that 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. Home rider Jan Raas has the most wins with five with Philippe Gilbert on three, ahead of Eddy Merckx, Gerrie Knetemann, Rolf Järman with two.
TV: local channel NOS starts their coverage at 1.10pm Euro time with Eurosport picking up at 3.00pm and the finish is forecast for 4.35pm. Tune in early to watch the riders get eliminated by the climbs (and sadly the crashes) but the bulk of the action tends to come late in the race so unlike last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix you don’t need to set aside your Sunday for this one.