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Amstel Gold women’s preview: Can anyone stop Boels on home turf?

Anna van der Breggen and Boels Dolmans will look to fend off the likes of Katarzyna Niewiadoma and Annemiek van Vleuten at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday.

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With the cobbled classics in the books, the women’s peloton heads to the Netherlands this weekend to take on the Amstel Gold Race, the first of the so-called Ardennes races.

After an initial foray into women’s racing that only lasted from 2001 to 2003, the prestigious one-day event brought a women’s edition back last year. Home favorite Anna van der Breggen took the win en route to a sweep of all three Ardennes events last spring. On Sunday, she and her Boels Dolmans team will look to defend that title and continue their hot start to the season.

The Route

The event runs 116.9 kilometers in full. After heading southeast from Maastricht, the pack will cross the finish line in Berg en Terblijt and then embark on meandering journey over the area’s many punchy ascents. Officially, the race hits 16 climbs. Some of those are repeat visits to the same bergs.

The final 20 kilometers should offer plenty of excitement, with ascents of the Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg, and Bemelerberg, before one final sprint up the Cauberg. From the top of the Cauberg, it’s 1.7 kilometers to the line. That’s just enough distance to leave the door open for a sprint, but a strong escape should have the edge in the closing moments of the race.

The Contenders

If you were hoping Boels Dolmans would cool off after a hot start to 2018, you could be in for a long Ardennes week. Anna van der Breggen completed an incredible sweep of all three races last season and she looks just as strong coming into the hilly classics again this year. Rivals may take some solace from the fact that van der Breggen has said she’s most inspired to win races she hasn’t already won — but the Boels line-up behind her is mighty impressive.

American Megan Guarnier is skilled on this kind of parcours, with excellent climbing legs and a strong finish. World champ Chantal Blaak and Amy Pieters are also on top form this season. No matter which rider gets the nod as team leader, this race suits Boels perfectly, and it’s home territory for the Dutch squad. Expect a strong race from the most dominant team in the women’s peloton.

It will likely take a major climbing talent to outfox Boels  on Sunday. Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) may have the legs. She has established herself as one of the strongest women in the peloton over the last 12 months. With Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Alexis Ryan also making the start, Canyon-SRAM is one of the few squads with enough firepower to challenge Boels, though it won’t be easy.

Annemiek van Vleuten will lead the charge for Mitchelton-Scott. Having tied (yes, really) Niewiadoma for third at Amstel in 2017, she’s a big threat on home turf, assuming she’s recovered from a crash at the Tour of Flanders. Given her talent for going uphill, van Vleuten should be fighting for the win in the finale, with Amanda Spratt and Jolien D’Hoore — if she can survive the climbs — possibly in the mix as well.

Marianne Vos (Waowdeals) has yet to rack up a win this season but nabbed third at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday and has the perfect skillset for the parcours.

Sunweb’s Leah Kirchmann and Ellen van Dijk, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla), Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), and Arlenis Sierra (Astana) are others to watch in the Ardennes opener on Sunday.

Podium picks

It’s entirely possible van der Breggen decides to work for a teammate on Sunday, but since she’s the best rider in the women’s peloton lining up on terrain that suits her perfectly, it’s hard to pick against her as the clear favorite. Niewiadoma should be in the podium battle too, as should van Vleuten.