20 April 2014

The second part of the spring season continues with the first of the three Ardennes Classics. The cobblestones in Belgium and France are replaced by short hills in Holland. It’s time for Amstel Gold Race!

The route
This year, there haven’t been any major changes to the route. The race still consists of narrow roads and twisty bends with a total of 34 hills to overcome. The final one, Cauberg (1.5 km / avg. 5 %), will be done four times. Last year, the organizers made a brilliant change when they moved up the finishing line. This means the line now comes 1800 meters after Cauberg and not on the top as it was in the past. This, and the extra lap of 20 km, have really opened up the race, giving opportunistic riders a chance to strike from afar.

In the past, this race almost always ended in an uphill sprint on Cauberg. For the World Championships in 2012, the finishing line was further up the road, which made for a great show. Naturally, the race organizers kept this change of route for Amstel Gold Race. The extra 1800 meters mean that it’s not just enough to be a strong puncheur anymore, you also have to be able to keep a chase group behind you on the flat part after Cauberg. Last year, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde went clear on the steep gradients but the ‘peloton’ caught them again before the line. It’s worth noting that it might have been another story had Roman Kreuziger not been alone in front, letting the rest fight for second place. Still, it shows that it’s definitely possible for a big group to arrive together.

The change of route also opens up the race much more. Last year, Roman Kreuziger attacked over the top of Cauberg with about 20 km to go. Together with Marco Marcato and Giampaolo Caruso, Kreuziger bridged the gap to the front group and never looked back. Opportunistic riders now know it’s possible to take the peloton by surprise, but I think it will be different this year. There are simply too many teams to chase. It’s not like last year, when Cannondale - with just a couple of riders left in the peloton - was left to chase all alone.

Amstel Gold Race profile C-Cycling

The Favorites
To me, the number one favorite for this year’s Amstel Gold Race is Alejandro Valverde. Despite a route perfectly suited for him, Valverde has never won Amstel Gold Race. Not surprisingly, the Movistar captain is very eager to finally change this fact. This year, Valverde seems stronger than ever. He didn’t win anything in Vuelta al Pais Vasco, but he showed to be the best rider - after Alberto Contador - on the climbs. I think Valverde and a few others will get a gap on Cauberg and I doubt the peloton will catch them this time.

On paper, this race is perfect for Simon Gerrans. He started out the season in style, winning the Australian national championships and Tour Down Under overall. Since then, bad luck and injuries have kept him out of the spot light. Last year, Gerrans came here after winning a stage in both Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco. This year, Gerrans hasn’t finished a stage race since the beginning of February. However, he did put in a very strong performance in Vuelta al Pais Vasco when he led out Michael Matthews to win stage 3. In Brabantse Pijl, Gerrans once again proved to be in great shape and I think he will be fighting for the win this Sunday. GreenEdge also has Matthews in the race. This means they can let Gerrans attack on Cauberg and still have Matthews ready should it all come back to a sprint. If GreenEdge doesn’t manage to put a rider on the podium, something really went wrong…

One of the biggest threats to Valverde and Gerrans is probably Michal Kwiatkowski. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the young Pole finished in top3 in five of the six stages. He never won a stage but in the final time trial he managed to secure 2nd place overall, pushing Valverde off the podium. Michal Kwiatkowski is very strong on the hills and very fast on the line as well. Last year, he finished 4th in Amstel Gold Race. He might not be able to follow Valverde on Cauberg, but if it comes down to a sprint, I’m sure Kwiatkowski will be in the mix.

One rider you must never count out is Philippe Gilbert. He’s not the Gilbert of 2011 anymore - and he never will be. However, he’s still one of the best riders in the world on a climb like Cauberg. Last year, he managed to get a good gap on the rest when he attacked. I have no doubts that Gilbert will try something on Cauberg again this time. It won’t be easy to get away alone like he did in 2012, but a strong attack on Cauberg, might be enough to put Gilbert on the podium. Also, look out for Joauqim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. Last year, Purito crashed and abandoned the race. This changed Katusha’s strategy completely. Instead of controlling the race, they went on the attack with Caruso. I think it will be different this time. Of the three Ardennes Classics, Amstel Gold Race is probably the race less suited for Purito. Still, due to this strong kick on the steep gradients, no one is dropping him on Cauberg. With a final flat part, the course doesn’t favor Purito against fast riders like Valverde and Gilbert. However, I wouldn’t bet against him or his teammate Dani Moreno this Sunday.

Amstel Gold Race, Cauberg, profile, C-Cycling

The outsiders
If this race evolves as expected, and it all comes down to Cauberg, pay close attention to Tom-Jelte Slagter. He won two stages in Paris-Nice and showed in Vuelta al Pais Vasco that he’s still in great shape. In a flat sprint, it won’t be easy for Slagter to beat riders like Valverde, Gerrans and Kwiatkowski. Still, a lot can happen after 250 km in the saddle. Fabian Cancellara is the perfect example, sprinting to 2nd place in Milano-San Remo, 1st place in Ronde van Vlaanderen and 3rd place in Paris-Roubaix. I think Slagter will try to go with the attacks on Cauberg. On his good days, he can follow the best riders on a climb like this one. However, he still needs to prove that he can deliver in these races. Last year, Tom-Jelte Slagter was flying in Tour Down Under but didn’t show much since, finishing 85th in Amstel Gold Race. This is the main reason why I don’t mention him as one of the favorites. I’m not saying he won’t win this race, I’m just saying he still needs to prove he’s up for the task.

My personal outsider this year is Damiano Cunego. I said it during Vuelta al Pais Vasco and I’m sticking to it. Right now, Cunego is stronger than he’s been in a very long time. He didn’t seem to have problems staying near the front in the Basque Country and this is a race he knows very well. Cunego won Amstel Gold Race in 2008. In 2012, he was in a great position but crashed with Lars Petter Nordhaug just as he launched his sprint. Last year, he tried to anticipate a final sprint but ended up chasing alone between the peloton and the breakaway.  Personally, I think the days of Cunego outsprinting the other puncheurs are over. He doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Valverde, Gerrans, Kwiatkowski and Gilbert anymore. Therefore, Cunego has to do what Roman Kreuziger did last year, if he wants to Amstel Gold Race again. He needs to get away in a small group. This would also benefit his team. Lampre-Merida has a very strong line-up for this race. Diego Ulissi and World Champion Rui Costa are both excellent cards to play in the final. Especially if they are given a free ride with Cungeo up front.

Another very interesting rider for a breakaway is Tom Dumoulin. As a local rider, Dumoulin knows every meter of the route. Amstel Gold Race is one of - if not the - most important race for the Giant-Shimano rider this season and he seems to be in great shape. He won the time trial in Criterium International and finished 6th in the final time trial of Vuelta al Pais Vasco. However, Tom Dumoulin is much more than just a great time trialist. He’s not afraid of attacking from afar and he’s very good on the hills too. He’s strong as an ox and on home soil, his motivation couldn’t be better.

For other opportunistic riders who are strong on the hills, look to; in-shape Wout Poels, Roman Bardet, Jakob Fuglsang, Lars Petter Nordhaug and Thomas Voeckler.  As you can see, there are a lot of riders with a solid chance of making a top result in this race. I would like to talk about Bauke Mollema as well but I simply can’t name them all. However, there is room for one last outsider. Should it come down to a sprint, keep an eye on Ben Swift. He put in an amazing performance in Milano - San Remo earlier this spring, finishing 3rd. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco he continued to impress. Especially on the tough penultimate stage. Despite five climbs and attacks from Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, Swifty stayed in the front group and outsprinted everybody on the line. He’s now very eager to prove himself against the big guns this Sunday. He won’t be able to follow the attacks on Cauberg, but in a sprint within a reduced group, Ben Swift will be very hard to beat.

For live coverage of Amstel Gold Race 2014, go to steephill.tv. Join the conversation on Twitter using the official hashtag #AGR2014.