Saxo Bank’s Roman Kreuziger took a maiden Classic win with a solo breakaway in the Amstel Gold Race
Words by Edward Pickering
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Sunday April 14, 2013
There’s a rule in cycling that is so true, I defy you to find me an exception.
It’s this: a single, committed rider off the front will beat a group of pursuers if they start foxing. It reverses the first golden rule of road cycling, that a cohesive group of riders will move faster than an individual, so long as they are co-operating. As a mathematical expression it would look something like this: Cohesive group of riders > committed lone rider > uncohesive group of riders.
Saxo Bank’s Roman Kreuziger was the lone victor of the Amstel Gold Race, and he can thank the reluctance of two separate groups of pursuers to work together for his win. He moved smoothly clear of a bickering group of fellow escapees on the draggy, exposed plateau at the top of the Bemelerberg climb with seven kilometres to go. As he pedalled on, leaning into the crosswind but maintaining a steady effort, the tell-tale signs were clear in the quartet behind him: freewheeling riders, little attacks and counter-attacks, followed by more freewheeling, and plenty of looking around at each other. The four riders, Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Blanco), Pieter Weening (Orica), Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) and Andriy Grivko (Astana), seemed more concerned with each other than the sight of Kreuziger disappearing over the horizon.
Again, on the final climb of the Cauberg, Philippe Gilbert of BMC found himself clear with Weening’s team-mate Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar. Perhaps, with one, last, co-operative effort, the three could have got closer to Kreuziger along the heartbreakingly long and straight final kilometre from the top.
Instead, they started foxing. Game over.
There was one more reason for Kreuziger’s win: the new finish. The organisers can breathe a sigh of relief that the first race on the new course, with the finish line 1,500 metres after the summit of the Cauberg, provided an exciting race with the novelty of a breakway winner. The race had grown formulaic over the last few years, with repeated straightforward uphill sprints.
The new course allowed Kreuziger to take advantage of an indecisive and small peloton by attacking on the second-last climb of the Cauberg with 20 kilometres to go, joining up with the survivors of previous breaks, and using them as a springboard for his solo attack.
Kreuziger used the final sequence of hills to break his fellow escapees, and by the time he hit the final climb, it was obvious that the peloton had misjudged the gap he’d been allowed. With only BMC able and willing to commit to the final chase, the balance of power swung to Kreuziger some time before the final Cauberg climb.
A mark of how efficiently Kreuziger rode his final seven-kilometre lone break was that he’d hit the bottom of the Cauberg 30 seconds clear of Gilbert, who’d torn himself clear of the peloton through the climb’s steep S-bend, followed at a short distance by Gerrans and Valverde. At the top of the climb, the gap was hovering just above 10 seconds, the Czech’s lead evaporating in the bright sunshine.
But Gilbert, Valverde and Gerrans realised that they were too equally-matched in a straight sprint, and each withdrew their co-operation. At the finish line, Kreuziger’s lead had gone back out to 22 seconds.
Valverde pipped Gerrans for second, with a fast-closing group nipping at their heels, and Gilbert was just overtaken for fourth by Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma. In previous years, Valverde, Gerrans and Gilbert might have expected to fill the podium, but thanks to a clever bit of route design, a clever tactical ride by Kreuziger, and a not-so-clever bit of riding behind him, they were just scrapping to be first loser.
Maybe it was the spring sunshine, which made its first appearance in northern Europe. Attacking spirits were liberated in this Amstel Gold.
An optimistic group of seven formed the early break. The riders in it had a variety of agendas, but found enough common ground to build a lead of 11 minutes, a contrast to the tight rein kept on escapees in the cobbled Classics this year. Klaas Sys of Crelan, Nicolas Vogondy and Tim de Troyer of Accent Jobs and Arthur Van Overberghe of Topsport Vlaanderen were there as advertising fodder. With no chance of holding on into the finale, they formed a moving billboard of Belgian businesses, obediently relaying their companions in return for extra television time. Alexandre Pliuschin (IAM) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel) both ride for teams which need both exposure and results, while Johan Vansummeren’s Garmin team could rely on him to help out late in the race.
With 100 kilometres to go, the lead was exactly 10 minutes. Chapatte’s Law of cycling (named after a French television commentator), which dictates that a committed peloton can expect to take a minute out of a group’s lead for every 10 kilometres, would predict that the race was well-balanced between the attackers and pursuers. But Chapatte’s Law is a bit out of date these days, and a series of crashes, combined with frantic chases (as well as some crafty hard riding at the front of the bunch by teams who hadn’t been involved in the crashes), brought the lead down to three minutes with 50 kilometres left.
By this point, Vansummeren, Pliuschin and Astarloza had dropped the other four riders, and in turn, Astarloza went for it alone on the Gulperberg climb with 46 kilometres to go.
It looked like the race would boil down to its usual formula: a shrinking bunch pulling back the leader until the final sprint up the Cauberg.
But instead, riders started chipping off the front of the bunch. Weening attacked on the descent of Ejserbosweg, pulling Grivko, and two Blanco riders, Nordhaug and David Tanner with him. They picked up Pliuschin on the Keutenberg climb. This left Astarloza alone at the front, these five riders a minute behind, and the peloton another minute in arrears.
The television coverage of Amstel Gold included several sequences of super slo-mo footage. What these didn’t show was the slow-motion chaos that was beginning to affect the peloton. Up the Cauberg for the second time, three more riders attacked: Kreuziger, Caruso and Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil. Simultaneously, the fast pace set by BMC up the climb had put a lot of riders off the back. Through the finish line, Astarloza still led, with the middle two groups of five and three forming an octet 30 seconds behind the Basque rider, and 25 seconds ahead of the bunch, which was down to about 35 riders.
The maths became more interesting at this point. There were eight teams represented off the front, and suddenly, the peloton’s job had become less straightforward, especially given its size. Cannondale and BMC took charge, but the relentless sequence of hills on the final finishing lap hit them hard. Cannondale had started the race with the clear favourite, Peter Sagan, but with two climbs left, they were chasing with their final domestique, and Sagan was beginning to be noticeable by his absence in the first 20 riders. The race was slipping away from him.
On the penultimate climb, the Bemelerberg, with Tanner and Pliuschin already gone and Astarloza caught, a series of attacks divided the front group into possible winners, and definitive losers. First Grivko, then Nordhaug and finally Kreuziger upped the pace, and by the time the dust had settled, there were only these three, plus Weening and Caruso left.
Of the five survivors, Kreuziger rode the most intelligently and positively as he attacked over the top. The other four will be kicking themselves for not taking the chance he offered of a ride to the finish, while behind, Gilbert, Valverde and Gerrans will be kicking themselves for allowing him such a lead. But it hadn’t been a gift – Kreuziger made two separate attacks, first from the peloton, then from the group.
The Czech was the only rider to take the challenges of the new route into account. His rivals seemed to be reading from last year’s tactical rulebook.