Michael Valgren kicked off Ardennes week on Sunday with a victory at the Amstel Gold Race, putting in a late attack to outfox big names like Peter Sagan and Alejandro Valverde.
Who impressed us in the most important Dutch race on the calendar? Who dropped the ball? Roundtable time!
How would you rate this Amstel Gold Race compared to recent editions?
Fred Dreier @freddreier: I give it four (of five) beers. Amstel always delivers a frantic and sketchy battle, and it’s fun to watch these guys zip around on the narrow, winding roads. The new finale has produced a much more dynamic and tactical race, as opposed to one that is just a sprint up the Cauberg. Yes, I totally criticized the new course prior to last year’s running, and now I think it is far superior to the old Cauberg finale. I think this year was better than last year when Gilbert won because he was so obviously the strongest. This year was a tactical battle, and it seemed like anyone from that front group could have won.
Chris Case @chrisjustincase: Just as nerve-wracking as ever, and not necessarily because of the racing action but because of the constant “slicing and dicing, shaking and baking, grippin’ and rippin’, turnin’ and burnin’,” as Alex Howes put it after the race. The plethora of road furniture, parked cars, transitions from big roads to skinny roads must make for a mentally taxing day, especially after almost seven hours of racing. The finale? Far less predictable than a finish atop the Cauberg.
Dane Cash @danecash: The bar was not especially high, but this was the most entertaining Amstel Gold in at least five years. The tweaks to the finish have definitely helped liven things up. Most of the big favorites were there in the finale, and a few of them actually put in attacks before the final few kilometers. Maybe this is a harbinger of good things to come for the Ardennes classics? I’m not holding my breath for La Flèche Wallonne, but perhaps Liège-Bastogne-Liège will follow suit.
Spencer Martin @SpencerSoward: An instant classic, five out of five beers. Moving the Cauberg further away from the finish has incentivized aggressive racing and allowed the anticipation to build into a perfect crescendo. The presence of the Cauberg in the finale in previous editions would reward the rider who sat in and took the fewest risks. The rolling final few kilometers in the new course rewards the bold. On Sunday, unlike this year’s Paris-Roubaix and Flanders, it felt like anything could happen with 20km to go. Plus, getting the chance to watch riders like Valverde and Kreuziger duke it out with Sagan and Valgren made this edition a win for the retrogrouch who longs for the days before the current trend of rider specialization.
What were the keys to Valgren’s win on Sunday?
Fred: I honestly think Valgren was the strongest. Obviously having Jakob Fuglsang in the front group to whip up the pace and chase down Alejandro Valverde and Tim Wellens was a major help. Valgren had really strong accelerations. He went the first time and the group really struggled to bring him back — I thought that was perhaps his last bullet. When he punched it the second time, and only Kreuziger could react, it really seemed like he was the strongest.
Chris: A combination of factors helped him to his biggest win yet. It certainly helped to have Fuglsang throwing down attacks in the finale; he could sit in and wait for the moment. The fact that many others in the group were eyeing Sagan, and in the end, Sagan didn’t have it, helped Valgren sneak away. And it seems Valverde and Alaphilippe just didn’t have the brute strength needed to pull him back in the end.
Dane: Astana put on a tactical clinic against more heavily favored riders in the last 25 minutes of the race. Valgren’s got a decent kick but he’s probably not going to top Sagan, Valverde, or Alaphilippe in a sprint. That made escaping the group of favorites a must. Teammate Jakob Fuglsang softened up the selection with a strong attack from a little way out, and then it was Valgren’s turn. Then, in the last kilometer, he managed to force Kreuziger into leading out the sprint. Excellent execution all around. All that said, you can’t overlook Valgren’s raw talent. His skillset is perfect for Amstel.
Spencer: Team tactics and an acute knowledge of his physical limitations. Sure, Jakob Fuglsang in that select group going into the finish helped Astana beat a group of likely superior riders, but the real reason Valgren won was that he knows exactly what type of rider he is. He smartly abstained from the attack competition being undertaken by the big favorites. He also knew that he could never win if he went to the line with riders like Sagan, Valverde, and Alaphilippe, so he went all in with a move that was his only chance of winning. There are quite a few riders out there that need to watch and learn.
Which rider(s) dropped the ball at the Amstel Gold Race?
Fred: Usually I am the first person to criticize some rider or team for an error. That’s not the case today. Astana had the numbers and Valgren was the strongest. When he attacked the other riders lacked the legs at that moment to chase. I know, weak take.
Chris: Team Sky. Where’d they go? The team’s top finisher was Sergio Henao in 18th place.
Dane: It’s tempting to pick any one of Sagan, Valverde, or Alaphilippe for allowing Valgren to snatch the win, but you can see why none of them tried to close that gap, so I’ll save my thumbs down for Sky instead. Between former winner Michal Kwiatkowski, Sergio Henao, and Wout Poels they couldn’t even land a top 10? This team is so hard to read in the one-day races. They seem to disappear when they have a big favorite only to pop up again and take a huge win when you’re not expecting it. Maybe a quiet ride at Amstel actually makes Kwiatkowski the rider to watch at Liège?
Spencer: Julian Alaphilippe’s attack on the Cauberg only pulled out the favorites, shed his teammate Gilbert and left him isolated. Also, Valverde would have wise to save some of those massive attacks for the final 5km. Not to mention that Sky did a whole lot of work and was left with absolutely nothing to show for it.
Who delivered the biggest surprise performance?
Fred: Chapeau to our Pro Conti friends from Sport Vlaanderen and Roompot for surviving the breakaway to make the front group. Also, chapeau to Lawson Craddock for having legs at the end to make it from the breakaway into the top 10. That is a huge result. I suppose Peter Sagan making the final group isn’t a complete surprise. He’s Peter Sagan, after all. Yet Sunday’s result hinted that Sagan may be suited for the hilly classics, and more importantly Liège-Bastogne-Liège, than we may have assumed beforehand. He looked fairly comfortable on the climbs and reacted to the hectic attack-and-regroup style with relative ease. Perhaps Peter Sagan can become cycling’s five monument man someday.
Chris: Two performances stand out: First, Lawson Craddock spent a ton of time in the break and then held on for a ninth-place finish, 30 seconds back. It was also great to see Ethiopian Tsgabu Grmay of Trek-Segafredo in the break until the final kilometers.
Dane: Nobody should be surprised when Peter Sagan does impressive things, but I was still pretty surprised to see him up there — and looking really strong — after a long cobbled campaign. Considering his particular array of talents and the race parcours, Sagan could probably win Amstel every year if he actually targeted it.
Spencer: Lawson Craddock. Riding to ninth place from the day-long breakaway was seriously impressive, especially when we consider his difficult 2017 season. I was wondering if we would ever see him in the front group of big races, but he certainly proved me wrong on Sunday. Second place has to go to Gasparotto. I was unaware he was even still racing professionally. Does he spend years in hibernation, only to emerge every few years during Ardennes week?