Preview: A more tactical Amstel Gold
Can a new, Cauberg-free finale spice up the oft-predictable Amstel Gold on Easter Sunday? What was once the exclusive domain of the puncheurs, riders like Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde who specialize in jumping free on the race’s final climb, has been opened up to an array of opportunists. The old Cauberg finish was a test of strength and strength alone; the new, flatter finale will test a rider’s tactical acumen as well. Will the fast finishers hold on? Or will the climbers team up to leave them behind?
Love the new finish or hate it, predictable it is not.
Amstel Gold runs 261 kilometers through the Netherlands — it’s not actually in the Ardennes, despite getting lumped in with the Ardennes classics — over 35 sharp climbs spread relatively evenly throughout the course. None of the climbs are long, but their sheer volume takes a toll on the peloton’s legs.
Traditionally, the Cauberg has provoked Amstel’s winning move. The finish line has been placed both at the top of the climb and, since 2013, pushed back 1.8km. But both resulted in similar racing: A thinned but still large peloton reached the base of the Cauberg, where a few riders were able to ride clear and then contest for victory. That left nearly 260 kilometers prior with little purpose but to soften riders’ legs up a bit.
The new finish moves the final ride up the Cauberg. The race will hit it for the last time at 16km to go. There’s still a climb near the end, the Bemelerberg, but it’s followed by a descent and rising finish. The puncheurs will need to go early if they want to arrive at the line alone.
The Cauberg remains an important potential launch point. Don’t let its stats — 900 meters at 7.5% — fool you. It’s a tough ramp with pitches in the mid-teens, tough enough for the strongest climbers to gain a bit of a gap.
The Bemelerberg will play a key role as a final selector. It’s not particularly tough, and so unlikely to serve as a launchpad for a successful late attack. If a mid-size group makes it to this point, expect a sprint. But not an easy one. Sprinters will need to get up the Bemelerberg in good position or they can wave goodbye to victory.
Who can win?
With two distinctly different but equally plausible outcomes, the list of contenders for the new Amstel route is extensive.
Amstel winners from the previous decade have been a who’s who of climbers with a kick. Movistar’s Valverde and Quick-Step’s Gilbert are there, as is Roman Kreuziger (Orica-Scott) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). These men, and similar riders like defending champion Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida), Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), all remain on the list of possible winners.
Kwiatkowski skipped the cobbled classics in favor of an Ardennes run, and will have the complete support of his Sky team, particularly since Wout Poels is out with a knee injury. The Polish former world champion has proven he’s strong enough to drive a break from 15-30km out.
Greg Van Avermaet is clearly on the form of his life. While these sort of climbs have traditionally been too punchy for him, he seems to be a different rider than he used to be. Don’t count out the Olympic champ.
But the new finish also improves the chance of a larger bunch sprint.
That isn’t to say Amstel is suddenly a race for Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors). No, sprinters who make it to the finale will have to contend with those 35 sharp climbs, plus the Bemelerberg in the final 3km. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), fresh off a win at the mid-week Brabantse Pijl, top the list of men ready to take advantage of a slightly larger group coming to the line.
Keep an eye on Frenchman Bryan Coquard, too. The Direct Energie sprinter has found better-than-usual climbing form this spring and will be a danger if a mid-size group makes it to the finish.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb)
Philippe Gilbert (BMC)
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky)
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida)
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Roman Kreuziger (Orica-Scott)
Bryan Coquard (Direct-Energie)
Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors)
Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida)
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
Arnaud Démare (FDJ)