Where: The Netherlands
When: Sunday April 17, 2016
This Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race signals the start of the Ardennes Classics.
Unlike the cobbled Classics season, that came to an end last weekend with Paris-Roubaix, these races are characterised by numerous short, steep hills over asphalt roads, and are the one-day races in which puncheurs flourish the most.
Preceding La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold is the first of a trio of classics known as the Ardennes Classics, although, unlike those races, takes place in the Netherlands rather than the Ardennes region.
Anyone under the assumption that the Netherlands is formed exclusively of flat roads will be surprised to learn that the Amstel Gold features a total of 34 climbs over the course of its 258km duration. None of these climbs are particularly long (only two climbs exceed 3km), but the relentless nature of them is guaranteed to sap a lot of energy from the riders.
Of those 34 climbs, the centrepiece will be the Cauberg. This is where fans will flock to the watch the riders, and experience the race passing through four times.
The first two passes will be fairly benign, both occurring too early on in the race to make any decisive moves, but the penultimate ascent marks the onset of the final circuit at 21.1km to go, while the final time over stages the race’s denouement.
Since the finish line moved from the top of the Cauberg to 1.8km further on in 2013, the dynamic of the finish has changed.
Though riders still make attacks on it, it’s no longer enough to summit it first; as Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) found out in last year’s edition having reached the top together, the subsequent descent and flat run-in to the finish provide a chance for other riders to catch back up by the finish line and challenge for the win (as Michal Kwiatkowski successfully managed).
Now there appear to be three main ways of winning. First, by attacking on the Cauberg and opening enough of a gap to hold on to until the finish, either individually or in a group.
This is how Philippe Gilbert triumphed in 2014, and how he attempted to repeat that success in 2015, so we can expect the same from him again, provided, that is, he overcomes the aftermath of the incident with a motorist last week.
Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) are both equally capable exploding up the Cauberg. In the absence of stars Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), this pair look like the favourites, with the former showing very good form at the Tour of the Basque Country and the latter reaching his favourite terrain following an impressive cobbled Classics campaign.
Both riders have co-leaders who could triumph if the race pans out in the second possible way; a sprint from a large group come back together after the Cauberg.
Gerrans’ Orica teammate Michael Matthews’ best chance of victory would appear to be from this scenario, having last year used up energy chasing Gilbert’s attack.
Similarly, Britain’s Ben Swift will hope to be able to lay in wait for a sprint if Team Sky teammate Kwiatkowski is unable to get away on the Cauberg.
Then there’s outsiders like Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) and Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) who are both capable of staying in contention over the hills and winning a sprint from a reduced bunch.
Finally there’s the third, most dramatic way of winning; from an early attack. This is probably the least likely scenario, although Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) managed to do so with a move 17km from the finish.
Among those who may give it a go this year are aggressive riders like Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Diego Rosa (Astana).
Amstel Gold 2016: Recent winners
2015 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx-QuickStep
2014 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC
2013 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Saxo-Tinkoff
2012 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Astana
2011 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2010 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2009 Sergei Ivanov (Rus) Team Katusha
2008 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre
2007 Stefan Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner
2006 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team CSC
Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx-Quick-Step 6:31:49
2. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar s.t.
3. Michael Matthews (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge s.t.
4. Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida s.t.
5. Greg van Avermaet (Bel) BMC s.t.
6. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto-Soudal s.t.
7. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step) s.t.
8. Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Roompot s.t.
9. Maciej Paterski (Pol) CCC Sprandi s.t.
10. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC s.t.