Preview: At long last, Amstel Gold Race arrives for climbers

The cobbled classics are over and the time for the climbers has arrived with Sunday's Ardennes-opening Dutch classic

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SITTARD, Netherlands (VN) — The bumps of Belgium are long gone now, and in their stead come the hills of the Dutch Limburg region. To be more precise, there are 34 climbs over the Amstel Gold Race’s 251 kilometers, amounting to more than 13,000 feet of climbing.

The Amstel Gold Race comes this weekend and with it a different sort of rider and race. Gone are the big and hearty men of the northern cobbles, and out come the climbers, the GC types, the puncheurs.

This Sunday marks the opening of what’s known as Ardennes week, the 10 days of hillier one-day races spanning the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Though Amstel is held in the Limburg region, outside of the forested Ardennes, it’s lumped into the onslaught of steep, paved climbs and teams look at the three races the same way: hard.

See the ’17 years of winning moves at Amstel Gold Race’ gallery >>

The favorites here are punchy climbers and general classification riders — riders like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Rui Costa (Lampre), Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp), and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Amstel Gold Race’s return to the new finish, and 34 climbs

This marks the second year for the “new” finish of Amstel Gold, nearly two kilometers past the top of the Cauberg climb above Valkenburg, the site (and the same finish, now) as the 2012 UCI Road World Championships. Ahead of last year’s 48th edition, Amstel Gold Race course director Leo van Vliet, a coach for the Dutch worlds team in 2012, elected to go with the worlds finish. On Wednesday, crews put the finishing touches on massive hospitality tents at the flat finish line.

The alteration means a different finish that can suit a different type of rider. If a lithe climber breaks free of the clutches of a group at the base of the Cauberg (1.2km at 5.8 percent), he may not be able to sustain the gap over the 1.8km to the finish. It’s mostly flat, but it will most likely be windy.

The field will climb the Cauberg — Gilbert’s springboard for his 2012 rainbow jersey — twice near the end of the race. The first time, the riders will pass through the finish area and up the Geulhemmerberg (970m at 7.9 percent), then the Bemerlerberg (900m at 7 percent), and then the Cauberg a final time before the finish in Vilt.

Climbs of the 2014 Amstel Gold Race:
1. Slingerberg (1.3km, 4.8%)
2. Adsteeg (700m, 4.5%)
3. Lange Raarberg (1.8km, 3.9%)
4. Bergseweg (2.6km, 3.3%)
5. Sibbergrubbe (1.8km, 3.9%)
6. Cauberg (1.2km, 5.8%)
7. Geulhemmerberg (1km, 6.2%)
8. Wolfsberg (800m, 4.4%)
9. Loorberg (1.5km, 5.5%)
10. Schweibergerweg (2.9km, 3.9%)
11. Camerig (4.3km, 3.8%)
12. Drielandenpunt (3.7km, 3.7%)
13. Gemmenich (900m, 6.4%)
14. Vijlenerbos (1.8km, 5.1%)
15. Eperheide (2.3km, 4.1%)
16. Gulpenerberg (700m, 8.1%)
17. Plettenberg (1km, 4.2%)
18. Eijserweg (2.2km, 4.3%)
19. Huls (1km, 7.7%)
20. Vrakelberg (700m, 7.9%)
21. Sibbergrubbe (2.1km, 4.1%)
22. Cauberg (1.2km, 5.8%)
23. Geulhemmerberg (1km, 6.2%)
24. Bemelerberg (900m, 5%)
25. Loorberg (1.5km, 5.5%)
26. Gulpenerberg (700m, 8.1%)
27. Kruisberg (800m, 7.5%)
28. Eijserbosweg (1.1km, 8.1%)
29. Fromberg (1.6km, 4%)
30. Keutenberg (700m, 9.4%)
31. Cauberg (1.2km, 5.8%)
32. Geulhemmerberg (1km, 6.2%)
33. Bemelerberg (900m, 5%)
34. Cauberg (1.2km, 5.8%)

Kwiatkowski’s coronation, a veteran’s confirmation, or a surprise attack?

All that climbing on those narrow roads and its timing as the kickoff to the Ardennes make Amstel Gold wildly hard to predict, though this much is clear: it will be incredibly difficult and immensely stressful. The roads here are one-car wide, and the amount of traffic furniture — bumps, poles, odd curbs — is incredible. Crashes at Amstel Gold are a near certainty, and large and loud crowds are a guarantee. It’s a race named after a beer, after all.

Amstel Gold could fall to a younger rider like Kwiatkowski or an older one like Valverde (second last year). Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) will have his eyes on the Ardennes races, as will Garmin-Sharp’s Daniel Martin, winner of last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Gilbert has won this race twice, in 2010 and 2011, and demonstrated in Wednesday’s De Brabantse Pijl that he has sharpened his fitness ahead of his home races.

Kwiatkowski is a good bet because he comes into Amstel Gold having shown he’s on great form (second at Vuelta al País Vasco, behind a flying Alberto Contador) and is a year wiser. And he showed his late-race snap when he blew up Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to win Strade Bianche in March. Last year, he finished fourth at Amstel Gold and fifth at La Flèche Wallonne. The Polish champion appears to be on the cusp of an Ardennes victory.

“Kwiatkowski was fourth last year and is in a good moment of his season. With Kwiatkowski the team can also count on a guy like Wout Poels, the queen stage winner of País Vasco. We did really well at País Vasco as a team last week, and therefore it is good for the cohesion of the unit that we also selected Jan Bakelants, and Tony Martin — who is returning to the classics after a few years away — as well as Pieter Serry and Michal Golas,” Omega Pharma director Wilfried Peeters said. The Belgian squad will also bring Zdenek Stybar. “He is the lone rider who participated in the cobblestone classics. He likes this race and the parcours. It’s kind of like a Tour of Flanders with hills, but without the cobbled sections. So, it can fit his skills,” Peeters said in a press release.

Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) won last year’s Amstel Gold Race, and shouldn’t be discounted, either, though he downplayed his chances this week in a team interview.

“I don’t feel at my best yet, but you never know. Even last year at this time, I felt really bad and at the end I won anyway. But I’m confident in terms of doing Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne. Rory (Sutherland), Karsten (Kroon), Nicki (Sørensen), and I are ready, experienced and I’m sure that you’re going to see our Tinkoff jersey there,” he said.

Last year’s third-place finisher, Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) has had a quiet start to the classics season, though he won his national championship in the road race — no small feat in Australia nowadays — and also snagged the overall at Santos Tour Down Under in the first month of the season.

In fact, the list of men who could win these races feels longer than that of the northern classics. Though the climbing finales are, in theory, more predictable than flatter finishes, races like Amstel Gold seldom are. Who saw Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) winning in 2012, or, a step further, Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) winning Liège that same year as well? Probably two people: Gasparotto and Iglinsky.

Riders from the home country have won 17 times, the most of any nation by a healthy measure. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) could certainly snag one for the home nation this weekend, but others like Costa and Slagter, twice a stage winner at Paris-Nice earlier this season, appear more suited to the uphill, then flat, finish.

As of Thursday, the Amstel flags were flying above Valkenburg. The massive tents at the finish and small patios lining the base of the Cauberg waited to house their raucous spectators. But what they’ll see? Well, that’s about as predictable as can be expected after a couple hundred kilometers of sinuous, hilly Dutch roads: not at all.