A thrilling finish saw time and space shrink like a concertina, one moment Julian Alaphilippe and Jacob Fuglsang were going to spring for the race, then Michał Kwiatkowski caught them in the final kilometre and seconds later they were all swamped by a chase group led by Mathieu van der Poel who kept going to win the sprint.
Let’s get the boring bit out of the way: this wasn’t the best race ever. For five hours the Amstel was formulaic, with a benign breakaway going away in the early kilometres. Some riders and teams missed the move and they were able to bridge across. The breakaway swelled to 11 non-threatening riders was never a danger and was kept at around seven minutes. You could easily go and do something else, like switch over to watch the women’s race where a lively finale saw move after move go, before Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) attacked the attackers on the Cauberg to ride away for the win ahead of home hopes van Vleuten and Vos.
Returning to the men’s race and not a great deal was happening or at least the action wasn’t visible. Still the climbs and course were having their effects, riders were being worn down by the constant pattern of brake, accelerate, brake.
Then things went up a gear with Mathieu van der Poel’s attack on the Gulperberg with 45km to go and the breakaway still up the road. Suddenly the race came alive but once the frenzy of the attack was over, everyone took stock. Van der Poel’s attack seemed premature in both senses, too early for the race and not wise enough either, he had Gorka Izagirre for company but that just meant Astana had placed a rider on his wheel and behind whole teams were still able to chase and van der Poel was using up some of his prodigious energy. Van der Poel got it and shut things down, sitting up and drinking in a way that signalled he was done.
The race could have calmed down but Deceuninck-Quickstep got to work and Dries Devenyns did a long pull which split the field and Julian Alaphilippe then took off solo with 36km and soon Jacob Fuglsang came across. Fuglsang’s having his best spring ever but this includes finishing second to Alaphilippe in the Strade Bianche, at the time it felt like an inevitable result given Alaphilippe’s explosive finish. If they could make it to the finish – and this wasn’t a certainty as they they had Michał Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin chasing at only a few seconds, often 15-20 seconds for the best part of 30km.
Behind in what was left of the peloton Deceuninck-Quickstep were in an usual position having run out of riders. Their modus operandi in the classics is to have strength in numbers but by now they were down to Philippe Gilbert and the Roubaix winner was trying his best but couldn’t contain all the counter moves from riders. Max Schachmann went clear and started to chase solo. Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Simon Clarke (EF Education First) were in tandem behind him. Then Romain Bardet jumped away, presumably aiming for a top-10 he couldn’t get out of a bunch sprint. With seven kilometres to go, on the final climb of the Bemelerbeg, van der Poel slipped Gilbert along with two other impressive young riders, Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) and Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto-Soudal) and Alessandro de Marchi (CCC) bridged across. By now the race was in pieces, remarkable for a race that’s got the tiniest of hills but they all add up and after 220km the field becomes very brittle.
Up ahead and Fuglsang didn’t want to sprint with Alaphilippe and launched two moves and if he couldn’t shake the Frenchman he was making him grimace but all along Kwiatkowski and Trentin were at around 20 seconds, then there was Schachmann chasing, the Clarke-Mollema tandem, Bardet alone, then van der Poel, Madouas, Lambrecht and De Marchi at 50 seconds and behind a peloton with Gilbert still trying to sit on moves. It meant a lot of riders contained into a 50 second window and with five kilometres to go van der Poel’s group collected Bardet, largely under the impulsion of van der Poel, roared on by home crowds as he hunched over his bike with shades of Tom Boonen in full flow. With 2.5km they caught Clarke and Mollema to swell further. Van der Poel was working but others were taking their turns and they were closing in.
With 1.5km to go Fuglsang and Alaphilippe were marking each other so nonchalantly they appeared to be looking around, peeking at the tidy flowerbeds amid the suburban finish and Fuglsang’s cadence dropped to a nonchalant 50-60rpm as they eased up. For Fuglsang this could be seen as a bluff, that he was prepared to lose in order to make Alaphilippe panic but in reality the pair both thought they had a more comfortable cushion after getting advice via their radios and from the race director making unconventional interventions from the lead car. But all the while the gap was closing in on them. Here’s a chart showing the evolution of Fuglsang and Alaphilippe’s lead in the final 2.5 kilometres:
The gap was closing and fast and Kwiatkowski had the two leaders within sight at the kilometre to go point and the van der Poel group was only a few seconds further behind. With van der Poel pulling hard the gap shrunk. Kwiatkowski surged past Alaphilippe and Fuglsang but van der Poel kept towing and with 300m to go opened up his sprint. Simon Clarke might have thought he was getting a leadout royale but this was van der Poel who days earlier had lead out the likes of Alaphilippe and Michael Matthews in the Brabantse Pijl and put time into them and there was no stopping the Dutch champion.
- The son shines 29 years later: Mathieu’s father Adri won the Amstel 29 years ago in a surprise finish too after two breakaway riders were caught on the line by van der Poel.
An overwinning by van der Poel, a thrilling finish after a great hour of racing. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang were clear but struggled to get more than 20 seconds’ lead which kept the suspense going. Yes it seems Fuglsang and Alaphilippe were too sure of their time gaps and were fed bad information but van der Poel’s impulsion in the final seven kilometres made all the difference and his efforts were rewarded, even as he towed the group into the sprint it looked like he’d pay for inexperience but nobody could come around him. With hindsight the Gulperberg move made sense, it cost van der Poel a bit of energy but meant got the race going earlier than usual with Deceuninck-Quickstep firing Alaphilippe up the road with 36km to go and turning the final 45 minutes of the race into a time trial for Alaphilippe, Fuglsang, Kwiatkowski and to a lesser extent Schachmann which blunted their efforts before van der Poel “only” had to engage in a 7km frantic chase.
As Liberation’s Pierre Carrey stated, it’s a confounding result bordering on the disrputive, a rider from a Pro Continental squad with no team mates in the final hour of the race demolishing entire World Tour teams. For all we might think Greg van Avermaet’s lacked team support this season or Peter Sagan needed more help in the past, van der Poel debunks it (although it’s probably more nuanced as having help often helps). Also not for him the habitual programmes and routines either, here’s a rider who’d only down eight races this season including the modest 2.2 Tour of Antalya and the Circuit de la Sarthe rather than banking a Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice, nor spending time on Mount Teide or doing the early season desert races. Instead he was doing cyclo-cross for most of the winter and will spent the rest of the season on his mountainbike with the MTB race in the Tokyo 2020 games as his big objective. He’s linked to his Correndon-Circus team until 2023 and can take his time, he’s already earning millions from the mix of cyclo-cross, road and MTB and has showed he doesn’t even need to move to a big squad where he might be ground down by the repetition, and the professional workplace vibe compared to the family outfit he’s with today where his parents play a big role in his career management.