By Jonny Long
Wout van Aert has beaten Tom Pidcock in a photo finish at a scintillating Amstel Gold Race 2021.
Max Schachmann, Bob Jungels and Mauri Vansevenant then hit the deck, a touch of wheels in the peloton, Jungels looking worse for wear, clutching his head, as the other two remounted.
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider was brought back at the start of the final ascent of the Cauberg, with under 20km remaining, Trek-Segafredo's Nicola Conci then hitting out, followed by Wout van Aert with Alaphilippe on his wheel.
1. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, 5-03-27
2. Tom Pidcock (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers
3. Max Schachmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, both at same time
4. Michael Matthews (Aus) BikeExchange, at two seconds
5. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck - Quick-Step
7. Kristian Sbaragli (Ita) Alpecin-Fenix
8. Matej Mohorič (Slo) Bahrain-Victorious
9. Michał Kwiatkowski (Pol) Ineos Grenadiers
10. Tosh van der Sande (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, all at same time
It was a nervy wait after the finish for both riders, the Belgian pumping his fist initially as he slowed down after the finish line, Pidcock and Van Aert sharing a word as they came to a halt, TV replays then seeming to favour the young Brit before Van Aert pumped his fist once more and began to cycle off towards the podium.
Jumbo-Visma and Movistar shared patrolling duties during the first few laps, and with 120km to go the squads of the favourites were content with the break still plying their trade out front with a four-minute gap.
Relaying well, Pidcock led over the Bemelerberg for the final time, and into the last 5km they still had 15 seconds. Fuglsang attacked from behind to try and bridge the gap with 3km to go, before Schachmann tried his luck with 1.8km to the line, the German knowing he had the weakest sprint of the three.
Pidcock remained stationary after the finish line, wiping himself down, unsure whether to be frustrated or elated with the result still not officially confirmed.
The breakaway's lead started to fall as the attention of the peloton behind picked up, the likes of Primož Roglič and Michał Kwiatkowski moving up, before Robert Power (Qhubeka-Assos) hit out with just over 70km to go, and odd move that didn't last long, before his team-mate Sean Bennett also tried as they hit the Cauberg once more.
Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) was then forced to chase back following a mechanical issue, as his team-mate Florian Sénéchal and Tratnik attacked, joined by Vingegaard and Michael Woods (EF - Nippo).
Finally, a poursuivant group clipped off the front of the peloton, Van Baarle. Senechal (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) among those who set off in search of the day's breakaway, they soon made it across the gap.
Valverde then made it across the gap, Kwiatkowski attacking and the Movistar riding closing him down, before Schachmann took over to bring the Pole back on the Geulhemmerberg.
Pidcock then countered, and only Van Aert and Schachmann could follow. After initially hesitating, Van Aert dedicated himself to the move, the trio soon taking out an advantage of 20 seconds heading into the final 10km.
Under the flamme rouge and the trio tried to shift each other to the front, the chase group coming up quickly. With Van Aert in the front and Pidcock only interested in the Belgian, Schachmann could sense it was his chance to launch from third wheel but Van Aert could sense it, opening his sprint from the front with Pidcock coming alongside.
Marianne Vos had already crossed the line to win the women's race before the men had rolled out of Valkenburg, with Tom Dumoulin amongst the local residents present at the start to wave them off, fans banned from the rest of the circuit due to the Covid restrictions in place.
Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) was looking uncomfortable at the back of the peloton, while Ineos and Alpecin-Fenix joined the efforts at the front of the bunch, and up the eighth ascent of the Cauberg the Dane was dropped, along with Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven.
Ide Schelling and Loic Vliegen couldn't resist joining the scraps of the breakaway, before Schelling pushed on alone up the Bemelerberg, the peloton hovering a few seconds behind.
The young Brit pushed him all the way to the line, and the photo finish couldn't have been closer, but the winner was eventually confirmed to be Van Aert.
Max Schachmann was left in no doubt, however, finishing third behind the cyclocross stars, after the trio had broken away from the group of favourites late on, evading the large chase group behind who were closing in quickly on the finishing straight.
After Alejandro Valverde had led that charge, the Movistar man finished fifth, Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) winning the sprint from the group behind, with Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) taking sixth.
The attacks were coming in earnest now, Dylan van Baarle hitting out, followed by Tratnik once more and then Sam Oomen (Jumbo-Visma).
Amstel Gold Race 2021, Valkenburg to Berg en Terblijt (218.6km)
How it happened
After being cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Amstel Gold Race was back for 2021, with an altered, shortened circuit, but still including climbs such as the Belmelerberg and the Cauberg.
Not long after the peloton departed the neutral zone 10 riders got themselves off the front, including DSM's Chad Haga, Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo) and Stan Dewulf (AG2R-Citroën), and by the time they got over the Cauberg, still with over 200km to go, they had a 30-second advantage before the bunch soon relaxed and their gap yawned out to around five minutes.
Jan Tratnik (Bahrain-Victorious) then hit out, dragging a group of nine off the front including Jumbo-Visma's Jonas Vingegaard, Ineos' Eddie Dunbar also getting across.
Luke Rowe was forced to chase for Ineos, bringing it back together, before Mohorič tried and failed to go solo as it ticked under 50km to go.
Soon a UCI official appeared, showing a photo on his phone of the photo finish, with Van Aert's wheel ahead of Pidcock's, a graphic then showing a provisional result with Van Aert first.
They were soon brought back, though, and the pace was really beginning to pick up as the peloton began to shed riders on the Geulhemmerberg. Dunbar then forced the pace once more as the peloton split into two, before Van Aert and Richard Carapaz snuck into a group trying to forge clear off the front, but they were soon brought back in, and the breakaway now under two minutes up the road.
Onto the Cauberg once more and Primož Roglič led with Pidcock in his wheel, such was the pace now that all of the escapees were brought to heel except for Bernard, Dewulf and Maurits Lammertink (Intermarché - Wanty Gobert).
Roglič had suffered a mechanical at the worst time, ground to a halt on the climb, as Max Schachmann, Michael Matthews and three Ineos riders in Pidcock, Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz joined Van Aert up the road, as Alaphilippe found himself in the second group alongside Valverde and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), the peloton fragmented now.
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