Michael Valgren wins an unusual double
You don’t usually expect the same riders to compete for victory in both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Amstel Gold Race. Let alone the fact that they are very different in character, with the former a cobbled Classic and the latter a hilly Classic favouring puncheurs, it takes a rare rider that can maintain their form from the first race in late February to today’s race in mid-April.
However, Michael Valgren (Astana) has now managed to win both this season, becoming the first rider since 1973 when (who else?) Eddy Merckx pulled off this unusual double.
It’s testament to a trend this spring of riders competing in a variety of different types of Classics.
Among the start list today were many other riders who, like Valgren, had also competed in many cobbled Classics this spring, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb).
What set Valgren apart was the fact that he actually managed to win. Having confirmed his potential with that win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, and impressed again with fourth at the Tour of Flanders, today’s result further catapults the 26-year old Dane as one of the most impressive all-rounders in the peloton this season, and one of its new stars.
The new route continues to look like a success
Some may still pine for the days that the Cauberg would almost indefinitely decide the outcome of Amstel Gold, but today’s race again exemplified the virtues of the new route.
Like last year’s edition – which was the first to remove the final ascent of the Cauberg – the key moves were all made much earlier, allowing for a more prolonged contest for the win rather than one explosive battle up that climb.
It still had an important part to play, with the many fans lined-up on the roadside treated to attacks from Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) that formed the first exclusive selections.
But it was the tactical intrigue that followed that really made the race. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) attacked 13km from the line, bringing just five other riders (Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, Tim Wellens, Michael Valgren, and his Astana team-mate Jakob Fuglsang) with him up to the leading six-man breakaway group.
From this point on it wasn’t so much about who was the strongest as who was the cleverest, as the dozen riders (which became eight after the final climb of the Bemelerberg) played games with each other.
Ultimately it was Astana, using their numerical advantage, who proved the smartest, with Valgren going up the road just over 2km from the finish with Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), while the more fancied names made the mistake of marking each other.
Sagan finds himself in familiar, frustrating position
When the key selections were made and Peter Sagan remained in contention, you could sense the fear among the other favourites.
The world champion was evidently on a great day, and nobody wanted to reach the finishing straight with him on their wheel.
Every time an attack was made the others looked for Sagan to mark it, and whenever Sagan himself made a move he was swiftly mark in the blink of an eye.
The group worked better together when first formed, especially between Sagan and Valverde. Due to their varying itineraries, it’s rare to see these two stars compete in the same race, and the sight of the two pulling together at the front of the lead group prior to the final climb was enough to get the heart pounding.
But that initial cohesion broke down towards the finish, with Valverde failing to chase, and an evidently frustrated Sagan allowing Valgren and Kreuziger to open up a fatal gap while the others continued to look on passively.
Sagan won the sprint for fourth place, suggesting he would have won the race had the attackers not been allowed to succeed, completing another irksome afternoon for the Slovak.
The Ardennes contenders emerge
As mentioned above, many of the key players from the cobbled Classics were again present today, but most (with the honourable exceptions of Michael Valgren and Peter Sagan) were clearly fatigued from their efforts earlier this spring.
The likes of Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) might otherwise have been contenders today, but both missed the selections made, while the more rested Ardennes specialists who will likely also be the ones to watch at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège emerged.
Alejandro Valverde looked his usual imperious self, and must go into both those races – which he has traditionally performed much better in than Amstel Gold – as favourite.
Two places behind him in seventh was Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), another pre-race favourite who looks in good enough shape to win his first Ardennes Classic; and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) built upon his victory at Brabantse Pijl last Wednesday to achieve his highest ever finish in the race (sixth), suggesting he too will be a contender in the upcoming races.
However, it was yet another underwhelming spring Classic for Team Sky. Michał Kwiatkowski has been building his season towards the Ardennes Classics, but didn’t have the legs when the crucial selections were made in today’s finale.
The Pole tends to blow hot and cold, often following a poor performance with a superb one in a matter of days, or vice versa. Sky will be desperate for a similarly quick turn around this week.
Boels-Dolmans can win whatever the circumstances
The second edition of the reinstated women’s Amstel Gold played out very differently to last year’s race, but both ended up with a winner from the all-conquering Boels-Dolmans team.
The race threw up the rare scenario of a break forming with 55km still to ride in which all of the major teams were represented, meaning there was never enough impetus among the riders in the bunch to bring them back.
Given how their leader and emphatic pre-race favourite Anna van der Breggen was left in the bunch, you might have thought this situation would not have been ideal for Boels-Dolmans.
But in Chantal Blaak the team had the strongest rider in the break, and the world champion confidently managed every attempted attack, before breaking away with Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) and Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) on the Cauberg and out-sprinting them both at the finish.
The win is Blaak’s biggest in the rainbow stripes and the team’s fourth out of the seven WorldTour races completed so far this season, underlying just how much they continue to dominate women’s cycling.