The cobbled one-days are in the rearview mirror but the spring classics are not over yet. Not by a long shot — especially if you’re a fan of short, punchy climbs.
And with pavé powerhouses like Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet joining Ardennes aces like Alejandro Valverde in the Netherlands, the Amstel Gold Race may have the most stacked roster of any race we’ve seen so far this year.
The stretch of events known as the Ardennes Classics kicks off on Sunday with the Amstel Gold Race. Although the race through the Dutch Limburg region does not actually take the peloton into the Ardennes forest, its lumpy parcours and relative proximity to La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have earned it a place among the trio.
Organizers have tinkered with the route in recent years in an attempt to liven up the finale. It made for an exciting finale last year when Philippe Gilbert won for an incredible fourth time ahead of Michal Kwiatkowski. The route sees a few small changes again this year. Whether they liven things up even more remains to be seen, but one thing that needs no livening up is the start list.
Amstel Gold organizers made a big change to the route last year, dropping a fourth ascent of the iconic Cauberg from the menu. They kept that change for the 2018 edition, while also adjusting the roads the pack will traverse in the finale in an attempt to give late attackers an advantage.
The race runs 263km in total from Maastricht to Berg en Terblijt, with a route that snakes back over itself several times to hit a number of climbs more than once. Officially, the parcours contains 35 climbs. Many of those are repeat ascents — the race visits the Cauberg three times.
Unlike a number of cobbled classics, the Amstel Gold Race does not allow the peloton to ease into the day’s challenges. The climbing gets underway with the Slingerberg inside the first 15 kilometers, and it doesn’t really let up until the finish.
No rest for the weary
Things get especially difficult for the final hour of racing. Between the 40-kilometers-to-go mark and the finish await the Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg, Keutenberg, Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg, and Bemelerberg climbs. The roads coming off the last two lumps in the road are supposedly more technical than last year, which could prove critical for a late escapee.
After the Bemelerberg, there are around six kilometers left to race. Theoretically, that is enough time for a well-marshaled chase to peg back a solo escapee and set up a sprint, but it won’t be easy.
This year’s Amstel Gold Race has no obvious odds-on favorite. Instead, it has a start list jam-packed with stars, with the list of bona fide contenders reaching well into the double digits. Plenty of familiar favorites from the cobbled classics decided to stretch their spring campaigns this year into the Netherlands, where they’ll do battle against the punchier Ardennes specialists.
Defending champion Gilbert (Quick-Step) fits into both categories. Nobody knows how to win in Limburg like Gilbert. In addition to his quartet of Amstel wins, he also claimed a world title in Valkenburg in 2012. The Walloon has shaken up his program in the last two seasons to contend on the pavé and that may make him a bit less of a favorite on the more climber-friendly Amstel parcours, but he’s still a huge threat and he’s looked strong all spring. Unsurprisingly, Quick-Step also has another ace in Julian Alaphilippe, who is electric on short Ardennes-style climbs. Coming off a fine performance in the Basque Country, he’s a dangerous alternative for Quick-Step.
Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the one rider who seemed capable of challenging Quick-Step on the cobbles. He’ll have another chance on Sunday. Whether he’s still got the form after a long classics season is a big question mark. Then again, Sagan has been in the business of quieting doubters this year. If he makes it to the finale, it’s hard to see anyone beating him.
Fellow cobblestone specialist Van Avermaet (BMC) has not had the spring he hoped for. Nevertheless, he was in the mix in every major cobbled race he started. Like Sagan, he’ll hope to make it over the countless climbs to mix it up in the finale. He’ll have Ardennes veteran Simon Gerrans and up-and-comer Dylan Teuns around as capable lieutenants.
Movistar’s Valverde has been the most successful Ardennes rider of the decade, and his skill set seems to be perfectly suited for Amstel — but he has somehow never won the race. He has, however, been runner-up twice in the last five years. Plus, unlike a number of other contenders, he arrives in the Netherlands without the wear and tear of a long spring riding the cobbles. It won’t be easy for the likes of Sagan or Gilbert to stay on his wheel if he lights it up on the Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg after a long day of climbing.
Speaking of former runners-up, it’s always tough to know what to expect of Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski. Sometimes he goes quiet in the races you’d expect him to win. Sometimes he snatches a world title, a Milano-Sanremo, or a Tirreno-Adriatico by surprise. He was second at Amstel last season and has all the tools to win. He’s one of the few classics heavyweights who has managed to top Sagan in a finishing sprint. Sergio Henao and Wout Poels are other dangerous cards to play for Sky.
Lotto-Soudal is another squad with multiple cards to play. Tim Wellens just won Brabantse Pijl. Tiesj Benoot also nabbed a podium spot in the mid-week Ardennes tune-up. If you had to put money on one team likely to try a late attack on the final climbs of the Amstel Gold Race, your money would probably be safe in Lotto Soudal’s hands.
The list of teams packing multiple options also includes Bahrain-Merida, with two-time winner Enrico Gasparotto, Sonny Colbrelli, and Vincenzo Nibali, UAE Team Emirates, with Dan Martin, Rui Costa, and Diego Ulissi, and EF Education First Drapac, with Rigoberto Urán, Sep Vanmarcke, and Michael Woods. Also keep an eye on Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Michael Valgren (Astana), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Albasini (Mitchelton-Scott), Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie), and Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin).
Sagan may be the one attracting all the attention at the start line, but don’t be surprised if it’s a different Bora-Hansgrohe rider lighting it up in the Amstel finale. Australia’s Jay McCarthy has always been punchy, and he has shown surprising talent as a fast finisher recently. The 25-year-old should be able to survive the lumpy route, and then he’ll be a dark horse to surprise some of the heavyweights in a reduced sprint.
Valverde turns 38 in two weeks but he isn’t slowing down just yet. He’s been brilliant so far this year, and with the freshness that a number of the cobbled specialists will be lacking, he has a prime opportunity to nab his first Amstel title Sunday.
I see Kwiatkowski in the mix as well, with Gilbert delivering a strong performance to at least nab the final step on the podium if not a fifth career victory.