Time to look back at the 2019 season, to select a few highlights for review and the chance to add some hindsight. In no particular order, here’s the Amstel Gold Race.
The women’s race had been enjoyable with Kasia Niewiadoma finally winning a big race. She’s only 25 but has seemed to close to a big win for so long and she took a satisfying solo win with suspense although not local delight given she kept the likes of Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten at bay.
The men’s race wasn’t lively until late. Things began to stir with Mathieu van der Poel’s attack on the Gulperberg with 45km to go, and the early breakaway still up the road. Once the frenzy of the attack was over, everyone took stock. Van der Poel’s attack seemed premature twice over, 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 accepted this and took a drink in an exaggerated manner to signal he was sitting up.
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. The two looked strong but just like the Strade Bianche in March the result looked inevitable: Alaphilippe would smoke Fuglsang in a sprint. Only this scenario wasn’t certain with Michał Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin chasing, often 15-20 seconds for the best part of 30km.
Behind the remnants of the peloton were firing off solo moves, Max Schachmann went clear and started to chase solo. Bauke Mollema and Simon Clarke were in tandem behind him. Then Romain Bardet jumped away. On the final climb of the Bemelerbeg with 7km to go, van der Poel slipped away along with Valentin Madouas, Bjorg Lambrecht and Alessandro de Marchi.
It meant a lot of riders contained into a minute spread and with five kilometres to go van der Poel was towing his group, roared on by home crowds. After catching Bardet with 2.5km they caught Clarke and Mollema to make a sizeable group. Van der Poel was working but others were taking their turns and their work meant they were closing in.
With 1.5km to go Fuglsang and Alaphilippe were nonchalantly marking each other, apparently the pair both thought they had a more comfortable cushion after getting advice via their radios and from the race director from his car. In reality they had a small gap and Kwiatkowski had them in sight at the flamme rouge and the van der Poel group was only a few seconds further behind. 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 there was no stopping the Dutch champion.
Why the highlight?
A thrilling finish. Plenty of races can have an exciting finale but this was surprising and confounding as riders we’d assumed were totally out of contention suddenly wrote themselves back into contention, first Kwiatkowski and then van der Poel. Van der Poel towed the group in the finish and then had the energy to win the sprint, there was moral satisfaction in seeing him take the rewards rather than being sniped on the line by a cunning rival.
It wasn’t the best race ever, just a lively finish. For five hours the Amstel was formulaic, a benign breakaway going clear at the start. Things came alive in the finish, in part thanks to the casual attitude of Alaphilippe and Fuglsang and the determination of the chasers who kept going. All this was compounded by a communication breakdown, the time gaps given by race radio and the TV graphics were wrong and so the riders in the lead thought they had time on their side when behind the chasers could see for themselves where the leaders were taking visual clues from the helicopters and race vehicles and could feel they were closing in. For all this van der Poel’s sprint left no doubt, he hit the front early but riders queuing on his wheel were powerless to try and emerge from his slipstream. Days before Brabantse Pijl was a big clue with van der Poel winning in a very long sprint, this time keeping Julian Alaphilippe at bay.
Bjorg Lambrecht had also featured in the Brabantse Pijl and the Amstel, impressive for a rider who had just turned 21 but he died in August after a freak accident during the Tour de Pologne. It’s painful to review this was and see someone in their element.
The Amstel turned many conventions on their heads. A rider from a tiny Pro Continental team demolished entire World Tour squads; although it still helps to have helpers. His path to the classics was different too, he rode fewer races and often much smaller, lower status events… and then after the Amstel went onto the mountain bike circuit. It makes Peter Sagan look conventional and conservative. He can do this because he’s successful, it’d be hard – read impossible – for a mid-level pro to dabble their disciplines like this without being told to focus. Lastly with van der Poel Correndon-Circus ought to find plenty of doors opening for them but they’re not an MPCC member team, the self-regulatory group which has led on issues like Tramadol and Cortisone abuse and so far ASO doesn’t just prefer MPCC teams, it’s issued 100% of its invitations to them so a Paris-Roubaix isn’t automatic.