A thrilling day of racing
Not so long ago, the Amstel Gold Race was a predictable, somewhat bland affair. A gradual whittling down process would take place in the peloton over the route’s many hills, before a climactic sprint among the remaining riders on the Cauberg.
Not any more. Since an inspired revision to the route in 2013, the race has become much more exciting, with this year’s edition probably the best yet.
The action kicked-off early, with one of the major favourites, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), making his move with nearly 40km still to ride, prompting a flurry of activity in the final hour of racing as the other favourites attempted to make up the lost ground.
But it’s the ending of the race that will live long in the memory. Alaphilippe and his breakaway companion Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) looked certain to contest a two-man sprint for the finish, until suddenly, out of nowhere, Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) appeared from behind.
Alaphilippe was able to latch onto Kwiatkowski’s wheel, but then another, even more stunning twist occurred as Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) - having virtually single-handedly lead a chasing group for the last 7km - also closed the gap, opened up his sprint, and somehow had the strength to claim a breathtaking victory.
The women’s race was similarly loaded with action, with Kasia Niewiadoma’s (Canyon-SRAM) on the final ascent of the Cauberg the strongest of several attacks. A tight, tense finished recalled the memorable climax of last year’s La Course as a pursuing Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) brought Niewiadoma within her sights as the finish line approached, only this time the Dutchwoman couldn’t quite make the junction in time.
Van der Poel works another miracle
The Netherlands’ eighteen-year wait for a winner of Amstel Gold came to an end in spectacular fashion, as Mathieu van der Poel produced yet another jaw-dropping performance.
When a rider is as strong as the 24-year-old has been this spring, they don’t necessarily need to make the right tactical moves to win, as Van der Poel bounced back from what had seemed a fatal error earlier on.
Just after having burnt some matches in an unsuccessful attack of his own 44km from the finish, he failed to react when Alaphilippe instigated what appeared to be the decisive selection.
With the gap out to over a minute, the Dutchman was forced to take it upon himself to chase, and somehow, despite receiving no assistance, made the catch on the finishing straight.
Usually at this point you’d expect one of the other presumably fresher riders, who had been towed along, to sneak past his wheel in the sprint. But Van der Poel is no ordinary rider, and once more defied logic to storm to a sprint victory.
It was a truly astonishing performance, and yet more evidence that Van der Poel is a once-in-a-generation talent.
Kasia Niewiadoma takes long-awaited victory
She may still only be 24-years-old (the same age, incidentally, as Mathieu van der Poel), but Kasia Niewiadoma’s victory at Amstel Gold felt overdue.
The Pole has been a consistent feature in the Classics for several years now, but has more often than not had to settle for runner-up finishes. She’s made the podium of Strade Bianche four times already, and has five top five finishes in the Ardennes Classics combined, yet only has one WorldTour Classic (the 2018 Trofeo Alfredo Binda) to her name.
She achieved victory without compromising her commitment to attacking racing, attacking on each of the last two ascents of the Cauberg, and making the latter one stick to claim a solo victory.
This could prove to be the result that sees her elevated to the very elite level - with La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to come. The question now is whether she can repeat Anna van der Breggen’s 2017 hat-trick of Ardennes Classics.
Alaphilippe blows it
For all of Mathieu van der Poel’s brilliance, it’s also true that Julian Alaphilippe made a costly error to lose what had looked like certain victory.
Despite being very likely to beat his breakaway companion Fuglsang in a two-man sprint, he was still anxious enough to want to force the Dane to keep making turns, thereby slowing the pace and allowing the chasers back into contention.
What had been a comfortable 30-second lead ahead of a chasing Michał Kwiatkowski with just 2km to go - and a whole 45 seconds ahead of a still further adrift group of the eventual winner - rapidly diminished. And though Alaphilippe looked like he might still salvage victory when he latched onto Kwiatkowski’s wheel on the finishing straight, he had no answer to Van der Poel’s sprint.
Still, Alaphilippe’s initial bold attack so far from the finish demonstrated what great form the Frenchman is on, and he still looks the hot favourite to win La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
Big names missing in action
For all the exciting racing among a selection of the sport’s most entertaining riders, there were also a few big name absentees in the climax of both races.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) endured another off-day, climbing off his bike after being dropped from the peloton as Alaphilippe made his attack.
World champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was also conspicuously absent, failing to get involved in any of the attacks or chases that characterised the final hour of racing.
Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) fared better in the women’s race, but still didn’t look her usual, all-conquering self in the finale, when she was dropped out of contention on the decisive climb of the Cauberg.
All these riders will have an imminent shot at redemption this week at La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but there are worrying signs that they might be lacking in form.
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