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Amstel roundtable: How strong is Gilbert?

Did Kwiatkowski forget the lesson he learned at Sanremo? Has Van Avermaet found the limit of his abilities? How about that Amstel route?

Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race produced multiple storylines. Wattage monster Philippe Gilbert crushed a group of puny rivals with his 53-tooth chainring. The race’s new parcours delivered chest-thumping action. Greg Van Avermaet overcame his Roubaix hangover to almost make the final selection.

You know the drill. Let’s roundtable!

How strong is Philippe Gilbert right now?

Fred Dreier @freddreierGodzilla on a Mountain Dew bender. A mug full of homemade moonshine. Peak Magnus Ver Magnusson. Gilbert is at this level of strength.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: The EU will suspend trials of self-driving cars and instead have Gilbert shuttle people around Brussels in a bicycle pedicab on his recovery days.

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Looking downright Merckxian this year — a shame about that kidney injury; maybe he shouldn’t have been drinking that Dutch beer — a Belgian should know better!

Caley Fretz @caleyfretz: I was going to say “Hulk at the Crossfit games” or something similar but let’s be honest. He’s vintage 2011 Gilbert. And that’s about as strong as it gets.

Pro or Con: What your assessment of the new Amstel finale?

Fred: Time to eat some crow. I was initially oh so MEH on the new finale, and now I will happily reverse my take. The lack of a Cauberg finale forced the action to come so far out. The big move went at 40km. The bridging move came at 30km. The final attack at 7km.

Spencer: Seemed pretty kickass to me! The hitters started attacking well before the Cauberg, so we had plenty of action in the tail-end of the race, especially the super-strong Gilbert group out front and GVA’s bunch chasing behind. Maybe Phil-Gil was making a point about his emphatic Flanders win? (i.e., “You couldn’t have caught me if you wanted to, Greg!”)

Andy: It forces the action earlier in the race, because riders like Gilbert know they have to try to drop the fast sprinters if they want chances to win. When the Cauberg was the finish, it all came down to timing on the last ramp. Just like Flèche Wallonne has been reduced to the final charge up the Mur, which is pleasing on the eye, but sucks life out of tactics. Organizers’ risk paid off bigly.

Caley: It’s way, way better. Think about it this way: If Gilbert knows he has amazing legs, and the Cauberg is still in the finale, what does he do? He waits. Why? Because he knows he can get away in the finale and there’s less risk in waiting. But with the Cauberg gone, Gilbert (and Kwiatkowski and others with good climbing legs on the day) are forced to make an move early to make sure they don’t come to the line with sprinters like Michael Matthews. The racing had tension. It was far better.

What could Kwiatkowski have done differently to reverse the outcome?

Fred: Not much. He waited until 300m for his sprint, and Gilbert still won. Perhaps if he and Sergio Henao had done some shake ‘n bake attacks starting at 10km to go they could have sprung one guy solo. Gilbert was so crushing, however, that I’m sure he would have made the move.

Spencer: Ironically, I think we could give him the same critique we gave Peter Sagan when he lost to Kwiatkowski in Milano-Sanremo: Don’t sprint so early! Kwiato had a great jump on Gilbert — I even told my dog that he had the race in the bag as I watched on my grainy Eurosport feed — but he gave the Belgian champ too much road to work with. What a great finish though.

Andy: Sometimes you’re that cat, and sometimes you’re the mouse. Kwiatkowski was doomed when he led out the sprint, and with the bunch coming on strong, perhaps he anticipated his sprint just a tad.

Caley: Sprint later. Ironically, this is also why he won Milano-Sanremo over Sagan (Sagan went early, Kwiatkowski won). Proof that nobody knows what “too early” is until a rider gets beat. We’re great armchair sprinters, though.

What did Greg Van Avermaet’s ride tell us about his strengths and weaknesses?

Fred: Van Avermaet is more than capable of winning the new Amstel. Another few watts on the Keutenberg and he makes the junction. If he decides to focus on the Ardennes for a season, look out. As for weaknesses, he lacked that little oomph that Kwiatkowski had to really zip away on the steepest part of the Keutenberg. In the grand scheme of weaknesses, this is pretty small.

Spencer: It told us that yes, he’s very strong and versatile — so much so that he can win on both rough pavé and routes that look like an EKG monitor screen. But it showed us one of his weaknesses, something he’s always knocked for: He tends to follow wheels and race reactively, rather than proactively. If his tactics were a bit more aggressive Sunday, he might have made the Gilbert group. Either that, or he’s just run out of steam after barnstorming the cobbled classics.

Andy: That he’s human. Van Avermaet certainly can win races like Amstel Gold and Liege someday, but as he spelled out last week, he won’t seriously target the hillier classics until he wins the Ronde.

Caley: Amstel shouldn’t be GVA’s jam after winning Roubaix. And yet it sort of was. He had a great ride, so it’s really just a case of relative strengths, rather than weaknesses. He didn’t show weakness in Amstel, he showed he’s not quite as ridiculously strong.

What is your top-3 ranking of 2017 classics racers?

Fred: 1. Philippe Gilbert, 2. Greg Van Avermaet, 3. Michal Kwiatkowski

Spencer: 1. Greg Van Avermaet, 2. Philippe Gilbert, 3. Peter Sagan

Andy: 1. Van Avermaet, 2. Philippe Gilbert, 3. Alejandro Valverde

Caley: 1. Greg Van Avermaet, 2. Philippe Gilbert, 3. Michal Kwiatkowski