Blazin' Saddles: Amstel Gold Race preview and Ardennes Week cheat sheet
A new finishing circuit looks set to ramp up the glorious unpredictability of Sunday's Amstel Gold Race – the first (and for many, the best) of the Ardennes Week trifecta. We take a closer look at the biggest Dutch race of the season – the only of the three Ardennes crowns to elude the balding pate of Alejandro Valverde.
So, it's goodbye cobbles and hello… bergs?
That's right. After the excitement, ferocity and ultimately tragedy of the cobbles classics, the focus shifts from the pavé of northern France and Flanders to the rolling hills and wildmills of the Belgian Ardennes and the hills around the Dutch region of Limburg.
Is this what's known as Ardennes Week?
Indeed. Three races – this Sunday's Amstel Gold, Wednesday's Fleche Wallonne and next Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege – make up what the marketeers have branded 'Ardennes Week' (although the Dutch hills of Limburg that form the backdrop to Amstel Gold are neither geographically nor geologically part of the Ardennes). It's ironic, then, that the Amstel Gold often proves to be the most entertaining of the three races named after a region that it does not actually occupy.
The peloton tackles a climb during the 2017 edition of the Amstel Gold RaceEurosport
What is this Amstel Gold Race you talk of?
If Carlsberg made bike races, then Amstel Gold would be what they came up with. Except, we'd imagine, with a different titular sponsor. Dutch beer brewer Amstel has been the race's eponymous sponsor since its creation back in the year England last won the World Cup (that's 1966 for those of you who aren't counting). The aim of the race organisers was to create a Dutch race to compete with the Monuments of Flanders, France and Italy – and although Amstel Gold is far from being monumental, the Netherlands' biggest WorldTour race is fast becoming a firm fan favourite.
What makes Amstel Gold stand out?
Well, it really is the amber nectar of races – with much fizz throughout and a spicy-but-smooth finish. No fewer than 35 climbs pepper the route with the race's calling card – the Arenberg to its Roubaix or Muur to its Ronde, so to speak – being the iconic Cauberg climb in Valkenburg, which is used three times.
What was traditionally so great about the Amstel Gold Race was that it allowed specialists from all of the spring's four monuments – we're talking sprinters, rouleurs, power climbers and GC riders alike – all to compete. That's why previous winners include a huge spread of stylistically opposing riders such as Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw, Erik Zabel, Bernard Hinault and Bjarne Riis.
Then what happened?
Well, from 2003 to 2016 the finish was located at the top of the Cauberg and the race became a carbon copy of the power-to-weight stalemate on the Mur de Huy that is the Fleche Wallonne. The dynamic changed and the list of winners – including the likes of Alexandre Vinokourov, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher – became a who's who of doctored asterisks.
And what about the 'new' Amstel Gold?
Thankfully, the race organisers reverted to the old system after a positive experiment in 2013 to shift the finish further away from the summit of the Cauberg. Last year, the finish was a whole 19km from the climb in a bid to create a more open race.
Gilbert makes it four - Amstel Gold Race - 2017Getty Images
Did it work?
Yes and no. Philippe Gilbert still won – for a fourth time in his career – but the race was indubitably exciting, with the pendulum swinging from side to side as Belgian picked himself up off the ground after an early crash to fight back and win. The aim was simple – to encourage teams to take on the parcours rather than sit back and wait for the final (as we see each year in the Fleche).
The change in 2017 saw non-sprinters playing their cards much earlier, which meant we had an elite group of heavy hitters (including Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski) being chased by another select group containing Greg van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde, all while the fast men such as Sonny Colbrelli and Michael Matthews fought back after being put to the sword. It wasn't so much cat and mouse as 200 mice frantically trying to swim out of a bucket of water.
What's the route like this year?
The 240km route starts in the market square in Maastricht and features three big loops through the South Limburg hills en route to the finish line in Vilt-Valkenburg. The slight tweak comes in the closing 19km following the third and final ascent of the Cauberg.
Once again, both the Geulhemmerberg and Bemeleberg climbs will be used (with 13.7km and 6.9km to go) but a slight change in the descents – to introduce some highly technical downhills – could make the race even more open than before.
What happened in last year's edition?
Well, Gilbert shrugged off the small matter of a ruptured kidney to win his fourth title, but the race was far from delivered to the Quick-Step rider on a silver plate. In contrast to his solo win in Flanders two weeks earlier, Gilbert was given a thorough work-out. He was forced to cover attacks from Tiesj Benoot and Sergio Henao, then countered Michal Kwiatkowski's late surge to hold off the Pole at the finish. 10 seconds behind, Michael Albasini pipped Nathan Haas for the final place on the podium.
Anything else we should look out for this year?
Crashes and chaos. After all, Amstel Gold is an urban race run on narrow roads often through rather densely populated suburbs and villages. There's more road furniture than a drive-through IKEA and the race offers a painful pick 'n mix of speed bumps, pinch-points, bollards, roundabouts, rogue pavements, traffic-calming devices, scattered chicanes and parked-car dodging. For this reason, Amstel Gold has regularly been criticised for its dangerous route.
Is there a women's race?
Yes. Last year, Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) won the inaugural women's race and will return to Limburg for the 120km race on Sunday, which starts and finishes in the same location as the men's race.
Limburg… why does that sound familiar?
This quaint neck of the Dutch woods is home of fruit trees, the odd petrochemical plant, folklore heritage aplenty (including the legendary buckriders – ghosts or demons who rode through the sky on the back of flying goats provided to them by Satan), choral singing, and hard-tackling footballers in the mould of Mark van Bommel. But it's also an increasingly popular cycling destination and home of the inaugural Hammer Series of team races.
Right, the key question: who will be downing pints on the podium?
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) is hard to overlook as he targets a fifth win that will see him tie the course record alongside Dutchman Jan Raas. Gilbert, incidentally, is the last rider to do the Ardennes triple back in 2011. Opposition on Sunday may come from in-form compatriot Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) who won De Brabantse Pijl midweek with such gusto, while another Belgian – Greg van Avermaet (BMC) – does his final race of the spring before taking a break.
Former double Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain Merida) should not be overlooked while Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) – second last year and winner in 2015 – is due a big race following a disappointing spring.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) offers a strong Plan B should Gilbert falter, while 2013 winner Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott) always reserves his best for the Ardennes. Australia's Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) is suited to this race, while compatriot Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) has the climbing ability to get over the hills and a decent kick for the finale.
There's also the enigma that is Alejandrao Valverde (Movistar). The veteran Spaniard is the best all-round Ardennes rider in the business although he has yet to crack Amstel Gold, finishing runner-up on two occasions. And finally, what about Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)? Having won in Roubaix last Sunday, the triple world champion will have no pressure on his shoulders as he returns for the first time since 2013.
A year earlier, Sagan should have won atop the Cauberg but ran out of puff just metres from the line as winner Gasparotto and Jelle Vanendert surged past.
Should Sagan win, he'll follow Kwiatkowski (2015) and Hinault (1981) as reigning world champions to win Amstel Gold.
What about some predictions for the rest of the Ardennes Week?
Be patient for we'll be running previews ahead of both the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week so we shouldn't dwell on them too much just now.
But the rider who jumps out is that man Valverde, who has a record five wins in the Fleche and four in Liege (one short of Eddy Merckx's record). To give you an idea of Valverde's domination in these races – since 2014, the Spaniard has won 50 per cent of all Ardennes Classics. And yet, at 37 years old and back from a serious knee injury, Valverde is not getting any younger (even if the results are still coming in).
The Ardennes also give us a chance to look at many riders we haven't seen much of during the spring classics campaign including Wout Poels (Team Sky), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Dylan Teuns (BMC) and Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
Milan-Sanremo winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) is back after a bout of saddlesores – and while Amstel looks too unpredictable and the Fleche finale too steep, Liege could offer him a chance to become a winner of a third different Monument.
Mitchelton-Scott also have two interesting cards to play in Ardennes nearly-man Michael Allbasini and the impressive Daryl Impey.
Ahead of defending his Giro d'Italia crown, Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) will ride Liege. But could this be the year for tyro Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) finally nail his first Monument? He was runner-up to Valverde in both the Fleche and Liege in 2015 and has shown fine form this season. He'll be one of the principal figures to watch throughout Ardennes Week.