Road

Casino in the Limburg: Amstel Gold Race

Dozens of favorites line up for Sunday's Amstel Gold Race, where a string of climbs and narrow roads makes for a tense day of racing

The Netherlands’ most important one-day race is named after a beer, and with a course packed with so many turns, climbs, and curves, at the end of the 258km test of nerves and legs, most riders might need a drink.

Anyone who thinks the Netherlands is flat has never been to the Limburg region, tucked in the southeast corner of the country. The Amstel Gold Race loops over a seemingly endless string of short but steep climbs around Valkenburg, with no less than 33 numbered climbs, totaling more than 13,100 vertical feet in climbing. Held over a mix of narrow farm tracks and urban roads loaded with traffic furniture, Amstel Gold Race is one of the most tense, nerve-wracking days of racing. Avoiding trouble and having strong team support are key for any of the aspirants to reach the last of three ascents up the decisive Cauberg climb.

The favorites: Take your pick
There are close to a dozen riders pedaling into Maastricht with realistic chances of winning. It’s hard to pick one favorite when nearly every major team brings a legitimate candidate for the podium. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has never won Amstel Gold, and will be shooting for the stars. Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) is defending champion, and has put renewed focus on the Ardennes this season, with eyes on a fourth career victory at Amstel Gold. Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) are all capable of victory.

Other former winners include Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty), Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini), and Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher (CCC Sprandi-Polkowice).

“The big objective are the Ardennes,” Kwiatkowski said, who remains winless in the rainbow stripes. “It would have been nice to have gotten results at Basque Country, but you have to remember to arrive fresh for these classics, because there are many who have prepared very well for them, like Valverde, [Sergio] Henao, Gilbert, or Purito [Rodriguez]. I’d love to win Liège, but Flèche or Amstel would be just as good.”

Astana brings a loaded team, with Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali, Lars Boom, Jakob Fulgsang, and Luís León Sánchez.

Additional contenders include Jan Bakelandts (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), or Sky’s Henao and Mikel Nieve.

How to pick a winner? Throw a dart at the startlist.

The course: Lots of climbs, lots of nerves
Two things mark the Amstel Gold Race; its endless string of climbs (33 in total), and a very nervous day of racing. The race starts in the central market of Maastricht, a bustling college town along the Meuse River. Until 2003, the race used to finish in the city center, or just south of town. Organizers moved the finish to the Cauberg climb to provide a more climactic finale, and since 2013, to a finish line just over one kilometer past the Cauberg summit, in the same place where the 2012 world championships finished.

The race consists of a series of loops. After rolling out of Maastricht, the course swings north, then east, covering the upper reaches of the Limburg region. It barrels through Valkenberg, where fans pack bars and the roadway for an all-day party, in what’s the first of three passages up the Cauberg. More loops take in an ever-tightening string of climbs. There’s almost no time for recovery, and once the race kicks up in the final hour, it’s very difficult to regain contact for anyone who’s blown out the back. Long-range attacks from 20km out have stuck, but since the finish line was moved to the Cauberg, the climb has proven to be the decisive part of the race. Teams will be working to position their leaders at the sharp end of the peloton at the base of the Cauberg, and then sit back while the contenders turn on the turbos. Anyone who starts too soon can get reeled in. Timing is critical up the Cauberg, with the ideal attack coming on the upper third of the climb, with hopes of having the legs to drive it home through the false-flat finish.

Steady winds that invariably kick up in the afternoon can also be a factor, especially for riders trying brave, solo moves in the closing kilometers.

Amstel Gold Race is also known as one of the most nervous and tense races of the year. The race is held over a mix of very narrow, uneven farm roads, and on modern urban roadways littered with an endless array of chicanes, traffic islands, roundabouts, and other traffic furniture designed to slow down vehicle traffic. Concentration and positioning are critical, as pileups and crashes are inevitable.

Geography lesson: Not the Ardennes
Though often bundled into Ardennes week for the convenience of headline writing, the Amstel Gold Race is not part of the Ardennes. Geographically, the race is held in the Limburg region. The nearby Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are fought out over the steep escarpments of the Belgian Ardennes, but Amstel Gold Race is held in the geographically and geologically separate region of Limburg. That doesn’t quite lend to tight headline writing, does it?

Cauberg, Gilbert’s favorite
The emblematic climb of Amstel Gold Race is without a doubt the Cauberg. In terms of altitude or distance, it hardly ranks up there with the major cols of the Pyrénées or Dolomites. Far from it. By any measure, it’s little more than a large hump. Just 1,200 meters long, with a maximum grade of 12 percent, the pros can grind up it in the big ring. But the otherwise non-descript hill has seen some major drama in world championships and during Amstel.

“I love the Cauberg. It’s my favorite climb in all the world,” Gilbert said. “If the finish was in Maastricht, I would have never won. You can take the climb in the big ring. It’s a power climb, with big speed, and then the finish is perfect.”

It’s easy to understand why he loves it. He’s won Amstel Gold three times, and the 2012 world title after attacking up the climb.

Weather: Spring, with afternoon wind
Mild, spring-like conditions will continue to hold over Limburg through the weekend. Temperatures should be ideal, with a forecasted high of 63 degrees for the afternoon with mostly sunny skies. There is little chance of rain, but northeasterly winds could kick up in the afternoon, with gusts up to 9mph, which would give the pack a tailwind heading up the final assault of the Cauberg.

History: Half-century of racing
The Netherlands has a deep history in cycling. In fact, the country boasts more bikes per capita than almost any nation on earth, and the bike is an everyday part of the fabric of life. Despite producing some big champions, the country never had a major, one-day race on par with the monuments in nearby Belgium and France. In 1966, locals decided to organize the first edition of the race. Now a half-century later, it’s not quite a “monument,” but it’s secured its place as Holland’s most important one-day race as well as a high degree of prestige inside the peloton. Jan Raas holds the record with five victories, with defending champion Gilbert sits behind him with three.

The Limburg is also hotbed for cycling. In addition to the Amstel Gold Race, the region has hosted the world road cycling championships no less than six times, including the last in 2012. And who won that? Gilbert, who called the Cauberg his favorite finishing hill in Europe.

VeloNews’ pick: Matthews
Brabantse Pijl is always a good barometer of who’s going well coming into the hilly classics. Based on the season he’s had so far, with big wins at Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and third at Milano-Sanremo, we’re going with Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge). He’s clearly upped his game, and he’s due for a big win. He should be able to get up and over the Cauberg with the fleetest, and will have the finishing kick to win out a reduced bunch. Close seconds are Gilbert and Valverde.

Outsider pick: Rebellin
Rebellin … Why not? The 43-year-old Italian, blemished by a two-year doping suspension after the 2008 Olympics, keeps hanging around, and he keeps posting good results. He was fifth at Brabantse Pijl, and this could be his last hurrah. There are whispers that the Giro d’Italia organizers do not want him nor scandal-tainted teammate Schumacher to be part of the team’s Giro-bound squad, so Rebellin will do everything he can to win now, with the outside hope of convincing the Italians otherwise. That’s what an outsider is, right?