Commentary: Two breakthroughs at Amstel Gold Race
By now, you’ve likely heard that Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race produced the year’s most dramatic and action-packed day of racing, in both the men’s and women’s events. Resplendent in his lily-white cycling shorts, Mathieu van der Poel took a signature win with a come-from-behind move that left Julian Alaphilippe, Jakob Fuglsang, and millions of TV watchers feeling completely gobsmacked. And Katarzyna Niewiadoma’s victory in the women’s race came after a gutsy cat-and-mouse escape that nearly came up short.
OK, both of these races were undoubtedly must-see TV for fans like us. Guess what? These thrilling performances represented immense racing breakthroughs for both Niewiadoma and van der Poel. Here’s why:
Niewadoma conquers her demons
Last summer I interviewed Kasia (pronounced Ka-sha) Niewadoma for a feature story in VeloNews magazine. Niewiadoma had just struggled through a dismal Ardennes campaign, and we spoke about the roots of her setbacks. She was forthcoming about her struggle to overcome her own self-imposed expectations to win, as well as her unfortunate history of attacking herself out of races.
In previous years, the combined weight of expectations and tactical inexperience had stymied Niewiadoma at the hilly classics, which are perfectly suited for her explosive climbing style. The increased external expectations from friends, family, and teammates led Niewadoma to put pressure on herself to perform. This pressure, in turn, caused her tense up at crucial moments, or make strategic errors.
“I just put too much expectation on my performance,” Niewiadoma said. “I wanted to give a result to so many people, I just don’t know why. Every now and then it happens to me. I cannot handle my own pressure.”
Niewadoma also admitted that her freewheeling and aggressive racing style often led to ill-timed attacks. Niewiadoma prefers to race on instinct and feel. She said she hated waiting around for those predictable, tried-and-true moments to attack in the Ardennes, and preferred to go when she wanted to go. It’s why she sometimes attacked on the penultimate climb at La Flèche Wallonne, rather than wait for the traditional sprint up the Mur de Huy.
“Maybe because of this attitude I don’t win as many races but it gives me pleasure,” Niewiadoma told me. “I don’t want to be a rider who has to wait for that certain moment.”
So, why was Sunday’s victory such a breakthrough? In short, Niewiadoma waited for that perfect moment. She kept her powder dry through the chaotic final 25km of the women’s race, and then fired her howitzer at the base of the Cauberg. Sure, it was the moment everyone expected a move to go. The women’s race uses the old men’s course, which finished about 2km after the summit of the climb. A well-timed acceleration on the hill often brings victory.
By waiting, Niewiadoma had the punch in her legs to drop the strongest riders in the bunch. Marianne Vos stayed with her briefly before imploding. Annemiek van Vleuten, the sport’s top climber and individual time trialist, mounted a chase that came up short. Niewadoma overcame the pressure and those errant urges to attack too soon and simply found the way to win.
And Niewadoma’s victory is more proof that the UCI Women’s WorldTour has achieved an optimum level of competitive balance. After seven rounds of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, five different riders (and five different teams) have won. Compare that to last year, when Boels-Dolmans won four of the opening seven races. As I wrote about two weeks ago, the era of Boels-Dolmans dominance seems to be officially over.
Tactics, be damned for MvdP
I won’t waste any real estate describing van der Poel’s come-from-behind victory. It’s something you should watch yourself. Here’s a fact I still cannot wrap my brain around: with 7.5km remaining the gap from Alaphilippe and Fuglsang to van der Poel’s group was 55 seconds. With just 1.5km remaining it was still 35 seconds. Gaps that big, that late, are supposed to be insurmountable. And yet, van der Poel flew across that gap like a rocket in the final 600 meters.
Sunday’s victory undoubtedly adds another clip to van der Poel’s springtime highlights. There’s that cartoonish victory swerve in the opening stage of the Circuit Sarthe. There are the battering ram tactics he used at Dwars door Vlaanderen to force the breakaway, keep it alive, and then win the sprint. The tactics-be-damned sprint at Brabantse Pijl. And now, the Hail Mary attack at Amstel.
Winning Amstel Gold Race represents a much loftier achievement than any of these races, of course. I have another reason why this race represents van der Poel’s breakthrough. He won, despite making a crucial tactical error that would doom anyone else in the race. With 44km remaining van der Poel attacked on the Guiperberg. Hard. It was one of those all-chips-on-the-table moves, and it didn’t work.
In the kilometers after the move, van der Poel retreated to the group and seemed to lag on the ascent of the Kruisberg. He couldn’t follow Alaphilippe and Fuglsang, or even Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin. His race appeared to be over.
Professional road cycling has a razor-thin margin for error. Victory springs from both strong legs and impeccable decision making. Riders who make tactical errors are not supposed to win races as long and punishing as Amstel Gold Race.
And yet, van der Poel still won.
We road cycling fans learned a lesson about van der Poel that cyclocross and mountain bike fans already knew: Never count him out. Crashes, mechanical disasters, and even tactical errors cannot, it seems, cannot keep him from victory.
Sunday’s victory is a historic and symbolic step forward for the 24-year-old. His heroic ability to overcome calamity spans three sports now. Mountain bikers watched him surpass a slow start to finish third at worlds. Cyclocross fans have too many down-but-not-out memories to count. And now, we road cycling fans know the unbelievable sensation of watching van der Poel squeeze gold from a pile of rotten lemons.
Van der Poel belongs to all cycling fans now. Your grandmother will soon know his name. Get ready, pro cycling, our new hero has arrived.