Cobbled classics done, it’s time for some climbing.
It can be hard to get over the excitement of the Flanders – Roubaix fortnight, and the Ardennes week can often feel like a slap across the face as we watch the peloton roll around for 6 hours waiting to turn it on in the last 15 minutes.
Do not fear! The revised route from 2017 is back and if last year is anything to go by we’re in for some gripping racing that isn’t decided by one final climb. There is a stellar cast of riders lining up in Maastricht and while we see a lot of the classics contenders returning we also see the reemergence of a different type of rider, the climber.
260.6km, 3449m of elevation. Ouch.
As always the Amstel Gold route is brutal. Rolling out from Maastricht, the riders will twist and turn their way around the southern-most region of the Netherlands (not the Ardennes) along dangerous narrow roads and up a total of 35 climbs.
The riders hit the first climb only 9.3km into the race and this is often used as a launchpad for the days breakaway. The race is rarely flat and the climbs short but often steep. Of the 35 hills, the Sibbergrubbe, Bemelerberg, Loorberg and Gulpenerberg are to be ridden twice and the Cauberg and Geulhemmerberg make three appearances. You can take a look at the full list of climbs over at cyclingstage.com (https://www.cyclingstage.com/amstel-gold-race-2018/).
Honestly though, you probably only have to worry about the final few climbs of the day. The Kruisberg is where splits began to occur last year and you can see why when it averages nearly 9% and has a maximum of over 15%. The Keutenberg, which comes at 27km, has a maximum gradient of 22% which is gnarly on a good day let alone after 230km of racing. Next up is the famous Cauberg at 19km to the finish. This climb used to decide the race because it was so close to the finish but as of last year it’s been moved back and the race is so much better for it. It’s still a tough one though at 800m long and an average of 6.5% so could still be a deciding factor in the final selection. The last two climbs are the Geulhemmerberg at around 14km to go and then finally the Bemelerberg which is crested with just over 6km to the line. Both are relatively benign at 5% and 4.5% compared to what the riders have faced so far but the intensity of the race and growing fatigue will make these deciding factors in the outcome of the race.
Cloudy but warm. The weather gods have been kind to the riders this spring and that’s set to continue for Amstel Gold. We might see a small bit of rain in the morning but nothing that will cause any issues and wind is set to be consistently light throughout the day.
Pre-2017 the tactics at this race were simple. Each team would bring their best puncheur, lead him out into the bottom of the Cauberg, and let them loose in a battle of maximum 2 minute power. If we were lucky we’d get a pair or a small group cresting and get to witness a sprint for the finish a couple of km later.
The route change that moved the Cauberg back to 19km to go saw this tactic largely thrown out of the window and we were treated to exciting racing from much further out. I expect this to happen once again as the roads in the final 40km are deliberately tight and the organisers have ensured lots of technical 90 degree bends. Teams will find it difficult to control the race and moving up the bunch on this kind of terrain wastes a lot of energy. I expect teams will prefer to have there best riders up the road and so I imagine that we will again see some of the main protagonists trying to escape with as much as an hour left of racing.
The Kruisberg was where the real racing began last year and then it was on the Keutenberg where we saw Gilbert and Kwiato really put the pressure on before breaking away as a pairing on the Bemelerberg.
I believe we will see a similar scenario this year. The climbs come in such short succession in the final hour that we will see a whittling down of the favourites until the decisive move is made on one of the last two climbs, most likely the Bemelerberg, where either a rider will get away solo or a small group will make it over the top and ride to the finish.
Peter Sagan, Peter Sagan, Peter Sagan. Somewhat surprisingly after his big win in Roubaix Sagan will be taking to the start line in Maastricht and is the bookies favourite to take the win. I wrote him off last week and as a result am scared to do so again. He’s once been on the podium at this race before in 2012 behind Gasparotto and Vanendert. That was back when the finish was at the crest of the Cauberg and so was a pure uphill sprint, a skill that Sagan had perfected at the time. The year after, in 2013, when the finish was moved back a couple of kilometres, he didn’t fare so well and despite good positioning was dropped on the Cauberg as Gilbert rode away for the win. He’s a much more complete rider now and has a real shot but I think the course may just be that little too hard for him. On top of this, if he wasn’t the most marked man in cycling already everyone is going to be wary of what happened last week. He won’t be allowed to ride away alone and if he’s in a group it’s likely to falter as everyone plays games worrying about his sprint.
Equalling Sagan as joint favourite is Alejandro Valverde. His record speaks for itself in the Ardennes, four wins in LBL and five wins in Fleche but interesting a big fat 0 wins in Amstel despite participating 12 times. He’s come close a number of times, with 3 podium and a memorable 2nd place to then world champion Michal Kwiatkowski in 2015. He seems guaranteed to do well at every race he enters and somehow (drugs) seems to get faster with age. He’s had a great start to the season with stage race wins in Cataluyna and Abu Dhabi plus he’s also had great showings in the one day races he’s entered with a 4th place in Strade and an 11th in DDV. Having had a little bit of a rest I think Valverde will be firing on all cylinders and is being offered very generously a 9s with William Hill so I’ll be backing him outright.
Lotto Soudal’s pairing of Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot are back after their successful 1st and 3rd placings at DBP and have both heavily targeted this week. Wellens looked unbeatable as he rode away from the group in DBP and I can only dream of the kind of watts he must have had to sustain in those final 7km. I found it strange that no-one from the chasing group came around a spent Gasparrotto to help chase him down but I can only guess that no-one had the legs. All the more testament to his incredible effort. If he’s to win it will probably be in similar style to that of DBP from one of his trademark solo moves. Everyone will be watching for it but if he can time it like he did on Wednesday then no-one will be able to follow however hard they try. Betvictor are currently offering him quite long at 15s so I’d get on that asap. Tiesj Benoot on the other had was comparatively quiet and it was hard to pick him out until the very final climb. Despite this he still picked off 3rd place and so is clearly in good form. I think that his recent trip to Sierra Nevada perhaps left him a little out of sorts for DBP (as altitude camps so often do) and that he was using it more as a tune up. Either way I expect him to be on great form this weekend and while Wellens odds have shorted his have drifted. Betfair currently have him at 23s.
What about Philip Gilbert? So much was expected of him in Roubaix yet he seemed over-anxious to get out in front of his teammates before one was able to take off and leave him to play the team role. I think he’ll be quite disappointed by his Spring campaign, despite saying how happy he is for his teammates, and he may be looking for redemption here. He was last years winner and is one away from equalling Jan Raas’s record of 5 wins at this race. His pedigree at races like this is unrivalled. Who could forget 2011 where won DBP, Amstel, Fleche and Liege! Despite his results not including a win this year his performances have been very impressive. He’s been visible in all of Terpstra’s wins and without him there’s a good case to say Terpstra wouldn’t be having such a great year. Quickstep also bring Alaphilippe who loves these races and comes off the back of 4 top 10s in 7 stage at the Tour of Basque. It’s about time he wins one of these races but I’m not sure that this is the one, he quick in a sprint but not as quick as many of of the other favourites and he’s not got the raw power to go away solo. I think Liege will be more up his street.
Michal Kwiatowski came to the line with Gilbert last year and surprisingly was beaten in a sprint. Kwiato often seems to blow hot and cold, one minute he’s world class the next he’s pack fodder. But for all that Amstel Gold is one race that he has been spectacularly consistant in. Top 5 in all four that he’s finished with a win in the world champs jersey in 2015. He’s explosive, he can climb, and he has a very strong team around him at Sky, with the like of Sergio Henao and Wout Poels (returning from a collarbone break) able to help him in the finale. His form is similar to that of last year with the exception only of his win in Sanremo and so I expect a good showing. At 10s he’s decent value.
Greg van Avermaet is the type of rider that should be ideally suited to this race but has never really shone here. Even on his incredible run of form last year he was left floundering as the front-runners pushed on up the road and he was unable to follow Kwiato as he bridged to the front group when it really mattered. After a 2018 Spring campaign that was nowhere near the level of 2017 he’s still searching for that big win although it may be his teammate Dylan Teuns that has the best shot. He’s hotly tipped by many and his odds reflect although I’m really struggling to see why? Sure he’s a great prospect but I don’t think he’s quite there yet. BMC do have a strong team overall with De Marchi and Gerrans also along for the ride but in my opinion none of them will feature significantly in the finish.
Michael Matthews is another that is hotly tipped but hasn’t shown the form so far this year to suggest he has a real chance of winning. This is largely because he’s been hampered with a shoulder injury from a crash in Omloop and has raced comparatively little since. He was okay in the Basque country, with his standout performance being the TT. I think he has a chance a good result but with the racing set to begin from further out I think he will once again find it too difficult to be there in the final.
Outside of the big favourites I think there’s quite a good chance for a relative outsider to have a good ride. As mentioned previously it’s going to be a very difficult race to control once the riders are within the final loop and if a lesser known rider where to find them in the winning break then anything can happen. Prime pick of these is Jelle Vanendert. He’s finished on the podium here before and was awesome in DBP. With all eyes on Wellens and Benoot it could be his chance to slip away under the radar. Michelton Scott’s duo of Michal Albasini and Daryl Impey are also worth watching. Both are quick finishers and on a good day can climb with the best over the short sharp climbs found in Limburg. Alexis Vuillermoz is probably AG2R’s best shot while Tom Jelte Slagtor lead Dimension Data. They will miss Nathan Haas who now rides for Katusha and has described this event as his ‘Holy Grail’ and is due a breakthrough win at an event like Amstel. Bert Jan-Lindemann is Lotto Jumbo’s best shout while Astana bring quite a strong squad but without one rider who I think can really challenger for the win. I’m excited to see what Omar Fraile can do after his stunning win in the Basque country and Dario Cataldo, Jakub Fuglsang and Michael Valgren offer alternatives. Vincenzo Nibali rides for Bahrain alongside Sonny Colbrelli and the enigma that is Gasparotto. Colbrelli looked good in DBP and despite not being able to go with the winning move he was able to win the sprint only a few seconds behind. Gasparotto was dropped by Wellens but did the majority of the work in keeping him within 30 seconds from the group. I’m not sure what to make of Nibali but I’m excited to see what he does. He’s raced a lot this year and never shows up without the intention of trying for the win. Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa of UAE Team Emirates could also go well but have shown little of note so far this year while similar can be said of Dan Martin although I think he’s more suited to LBL or Fleche.
Of the pro continental teams Bryan Coquard offers a great sprint option and was very strong in DBP however if the racing is as hard as expected I doubt he’ll be near the front when it matters. Damiano Cunego is a former winner of this race and is backed up by in-form Marco Canola. Roompot’s Pieter Weening may have been a strong pick in the past and I expect we’ll see him on the attack at some point while Aqua Blue’s Larry Warbasse was their most visible rider in DBP but it would be a miracle if he were to get a result here.
1pts on Valverde to win at 9s (WillHill)
0.5pts on Kwiatkowski to win at 10s (Betway)
0.5pts on Gilbert to win at 11s (Betway)
0.5pts on Wellens to win at 15s (Betvictor)
0.25pts on Benoot to win at 23s (Betfair)
2pts on Nibali tb Poels at 1.72 (bet365)
2pts on Gilbert tb van Avermaet at 1.72 (bet365)