It’s time to switch gears and swap out the bergs for the côtes. Trade the Kemmelberg for La Redoute and head east out of the flats of Flanders and into the misty hills of the Ardennes.
After two action-packed weeks of stampeding across the cobblestones, the pavé settles back into dormancy, and the peloton shifts its center of gravity east.
But before the pack hits the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne (April 17) or the Côte de Saint-Nicolas at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 21), first comes the Amstel Gold Race, held over the short, but painfully steep hills of The Netherlands’ Limburg region.
Long overlooked as the lesser cousin of the Ardennes, Amstel Gold gained new traction in 2003 after organizers repositioned the finish line atop the Cauberg climb.
Instead of concluding on the flats in front of a cement factory south of Maastricht, the race ended atop the iconic Cauberg climb, packed with all the drama of a mountain-top finish, albeit Dutch-style.
On Sunday, riders from 23 teams lining up in Maastricht’s Market Square will face new course alterations that will once again reshape the Dutch classic.
First, the finish line will be placed 1.8 kilometers after the top of the Cauberg. (Some reports claim 1.2km, but race organizers insist the distance is 1.8km.)
Inspired by what they saw in last year’s elite road world championships, when Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) kicked to victory in the elite men’s race in dramatic fashion, organizers have decided to place the Amstel Gold Race finish line in the exact same spot.
A new finish circuit for Amstel Gold Race
A second change is the inclusion of a new finishing circuit that expands the number of climbs from 32 to 34, including two of a total of four passages up the Cauberg in the new final circuit.
Race director Leo Van Vliet defended the changes and said they will pump new drama into the race.
“We wanted to change the rhythm of the race and allow riders more chances to attack,” Van Vliet told the Dutch media. “We saw how the race was last year in the worlds. The new finish line changes everything.”
With the move to the 1.2km, 5.8-percent Cauberg a decade ago, organizers transformed the race into a blitz up the emblematic climb. Long-range attacks were inevitably reeled in as teams controlled the pace until the final charge above Valkenburg.
Timing was everything. Go too early, like Gilbert did in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, and you get caught. Leave it too late and there would be no chance to chase back attacks.
Though explosive and exciting, Van Vliet and others feared the race was in danger of becoming routine.
Changing tactics in the Amstel finale
After watching the dynamics of last year’s worlds races across all disciplines, organizers decided that moving the finish line nearly two kilometers past the Cauberg would inject a new factor of unpredictability into the dynamics of the race.
Though Gilbert had the legs to fend off a disorganized chase, plenty of road remains for riders to band together and organize a brief but effective hunt before running out of tarmac.
Or at least that’s the idea.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), who was third in 2011, said it’s difficult to compare what the peloton will see Sunday to what happened in last year’s worlds.
Gerrans pointed out that the Amstel Gold course, at just over 4,000 vertical meters, features much more climbing compared to the worlds course, which was held over 10 laps on a 15.5km circuit course after a 100km point-to-point start.
“It’s hard to predict how the finish can and will change the way the race unfolds,” Gerrans said in a team release after reviewing the course. “Typically, this is a race of attrition. It gets harder and harder and faster and faster as the day goes on. With each new difficulty, the front group becomes more and more select. The strongest guys on the day are left to contest the win.”
Whether Gilbert will be able to repeat his rainbow jersey-winning surge from last year’s worlds remains to be seen. The Belgians tightly controlled the worlds, while Sunday’s race will likely see a much more open affair.
The Cannondale and BMC Racing teams of pre-race favorites Peter Sagan and Gilbert will ride to control long-distance fliers out of the pack in the closing hour to deliver their captains in position for the final charge up the Cauberg.
Speaking to VeloNews earlier this year, Gilbert said the key to the new finish is the timing of the attack.
“If you go too soon on the Cauberg, there is no chance of making it to the finish line, because it is too far,” Gilbert said. “Last year, I waited and waited. When I had a gap with 500 meters to go, I knew I had won.”
Another important change is how the pack will arrive to the final punch up the Cauberg. Instead of sweeping left through the rowdy village of Valkenburg onto the base of the Cauberg, the course will now tackle a new loop toward Maastricht to the west.
After the penultimate of four passages up the Cauberg, the route sweeps west (left), immediately tackling the Geulhemmerberg (970m long at 7.9 percent) before dropping toward Maastricht. On the return, the route hits the Bemelerberg (900m long at 7 percent). Those two climbs are sure to trigger attacks to try to surprise the favorites.
Race officials also confirmed that the changes will be in place through 2017, with agreements with Maastricht and Valkenburg to host the race for the next five years.
Amstel Gold is one of the most nerve-wracking races of the year, with a series of loops hitting an endless string of short, but punchy climbs. Narrow roads, gusting winds, traffic furniture, and inclement weather convert the race into a test of nerves as well as strength.
It will be interesting to watch how the teams adapt their tactics to the new course dynamics. As Gilbert said, if you have the legs, it doesn’t matter where they put the finish line.