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 and a new finish is designed to stir up the action. Sunday’s race offers the rare chance of seeing the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde, the season’s most succesful riders, go up against each other.
Here’s a race preview with the usual look at the course, contenders, TV times and more.
The Route: 259.7km 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, as well as a brief visit into Belgium.
In total there are 35 climbs, albeit with some counted two or even three times and others would barely register as a 4th category climb in the Tour de France. Few of climbs are 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 29km to go. If one hill climb is fine, 35 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 packed with street furniture and traffic calming measures to enrage straggling racers.
The Finish: this is the novelty for 2017 but it’s not that new or different. You’ll remember the previous course tackled the Bemelerberg (1.3km at 3%, a brief moment at 6%) and then after a flat section dropped into Valkenburg and taking the sharp corner to start the Cauberg climb (1500m long and 4.7% but with steeper earlier sections maxing at 12) and then 1.8km along a false flat to the finish.
Now the race scales the Bemelerberg, drops a little and then takes a left at the top towards Vilt, avoiding the descent into Valkenburg and the climb of the Cauberg. The new road is ordinary and slightly downhill before it joins the old finishing straight with 900 metres to go.
The Scenario: a bunch sprint or a breakaway? The change to the finish is designed to prompt the climbers and attackers to take their chances earlier in the race rather than sit tight all day for the Cauberg. Subtract the Cauberg though and you have a less selective finish that lends itself to a bunch sprint of the surviving riders, say 50 or so riders. As ever it’s the riders who make the race but on these roads its hard for a team to control matters.
Michael Matthews is the safe pick for his ability to get over the climbs and win the sprint from the surviving group. He was last year too but the revised finish suits him even more only this simply means everyone else knows it and has an interest in splitting the race up. Matthews is in good form having won the opening stage of the Tour of the Basque Country and if his Sunweb team flies under a German flag they’re long on Dutch heritage and staff so this is almost their home race. Simon Geschke, Wilco Kelderman and Warren Barguil provide more options.
Sonny Colbrelli made the podium last year and returns in great shape having just won the Brabantse Pijl making the sprint look easy and after working hard to propel the breakaway. He can’t win dragstrip sprints but this course will eliminate rivals. Enrico Gasparotto has won twice before but in the absence of the Cauberg but surely Colbrelli is the team’s pick right now.
Who’d bet against Greg Van Avermaet? One of the doubts about his Paris-Roubaix win was whether he could keep the form that he showed in the Omloop all the way into mid-April but that’s been addressed by now. He’s versatile and transformed from nearly-man into surgical finisseur who seems unshakeable when sprinting from a small group. The mooted bunch sprint won’t be for him so look for a late move.
Alejandro Valverde is another rider with an aura of invincibility this year. However he seems more suited to upcoming races than this one, even with his great form he won’t win a bunch sprint and if he makes it into a winning breakaway he’ll still find competition from fast finishers and the move away from the Cauberg won’t help.
Michał Kwiatkowski is back in action for Team Sky and a previous winner of this race when he threaded his way through the bunch to win the sprint. The lack of the Cauberg means purer sprinters and finishers won’t be so asphyxiated so Kwiatkowski’s chances of a win look slimmer unless he takes a flyer early and gets in a selective more.
Philippe Gilbert leads a Quick Step team so strong you wonder who will be fetching the bottles (answer: neo-pro Max Schachmann). Once upon a time he was invincible on the Cauberg but perhaps age has dimmed his uphill jump so the change in the finish is no bad thing. Gianluca Brambilla should be coming into form for the Giro, Petr Vakoč looked good in the Brabantse Pijl, Zdeněk Štybar is in great shape after his podium in Roubaix but has had his best results on hilly roads while Dan Martin, Bob Jungels and Dries Devenyns bring more but they’ll still miss the injured Julian Alaphilippe.
Nathan Haas is a good outsider for reduced sprint finishes. He’s long shown his talent but that’s been part of the problem, a tendency to show too early in a race rather than pop up in the final ten seconds to snipe the win. He’s better at this now only the subtraction of the Cauberg doesn’t help.
Orica-Scott have some options for a sprint in Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini but their problem is the competition. Gerrans could sneak away in a move, Albasini could hope for a sprint from a reduced group but either way they’ll have rivals. Gerrans used to be ideal for this kind of race but he’s 36 now and aside from the Tour Down Under this year – a welcome return but a parenthesis – he wasn’t won anything since 2014. “Alba” is still winning but an outsider all the same.
Lotto-Soudal have an exciting squad with the likes of Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot forming a redoubtable attacking pair to the delight of TV producers fearing a procession and a bunch sprint. But attacking is one thing, winning another and for all the excitement it’s hard to see a win. Tosh Van Der Sande and Sean de Bie add more fireworks.
Bryan Coquard is made for a race like this and has been winning plenty of races this year but he’s yet to win a World Tour race. On his day he can rival Marcel Kittel in a speed contest and because he weighs less than 60kg he can scale the hills. But the lack of wins means a lack of assurance and he and his team can waste energy, we saw this in the Brabantse Pijl where Direct Energie did plenty of work only for Coquard to launch his own attack disrupt what was left of the chase. Lilian Calemejane is one to watch, successful in lower tier races but now hunting for World Tour glory.
Finally the quick run of others. Lotto-Jumbo race at home but it’s hard to see a win, they’ll hope for a podium with Paul Martens. UAE-Emirate’s Ben Swift is similar to Bryan Coquard, each former track riders and lighter sprinters. Only Swift is far less prolific but tends to place on the podium in big races. Trek-Segafredo’s Fabio Felline had a horror crash a year ago when he somehow put his hand in his front wheel, his hand met the fork and he cartwheeled over the front of his bike to fracture his skull so it’d be poetic if he could win and he’s an outsider, able on hilly courses but the distance could toll today. Michael Valgren made the podium last year and has plenty of talent but how to win, he’s not shown the sprint needed. Bora-Hansgrohe rest Peter Sagan in arguably the most obvious race for his skillset leaving Patrick Konrad and Jay McCarthy as stealth picks. FDJ’s Arthur Vichot has been knocking on the door of a big win in a hilly race for some time but he’s taken a few knocks of late, getting beaten in races when if he want to win the Amstel he’d need to have won by a long way. Lastly Wanty-Groupe Gobert won a year ago and their hopes rest on Xandro Meurisse who packs a fast finish.
|Greg Van Avermaet
|Philippe Gilbert, Michał Kwiatkowski, Bryan Coquard, Tim Wellens, Albasini, Alejandro Valverde
|Benoot, Haas, Swift, Gerrans, Vakoč, Felline
Weather: cool and cloudy with the chance of rain. A top temperature of 11°C. Crucially there will be a 20km/h wind from the west, nothing to ravage the peloton but enough to ensure a head/tail/crosswind along the course including a headwind for the finishing straight.
History: first run in 1966 to promote Amstel Gold beer, this is the 52st 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 and Enrico Gasparotto with two.
TV: the race starts at 10.20 CET in, local channel NOS starts their coverage at 1.10pm Euro time with Eurosport picking up at 3.00pm and the finish is forecast for 4.55pm CET. 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.
Women’s race: there’s a women’s race on too for the first time with the finish forecast for 2.15pm CET. It’s partly on TV with Dutch channel NOS covering it. I wish it was on Saturday and plan to explain more in the blog post next week.