Road

Preview: Amstel Gold, where the puncheurs shine

Sunday's opening race of the Ardennes classics features 34 climbs that add up to more than 12,000 feet of vertical.

This weekend we drive north from Roubaix and turn right, leaving the cobbles behind and entering a region decidedly more vertical.

The first of the Ardennes classics doesn’t actually take place in the Ardennes, but rather the lumpy region of the Netherlands outside Maastricht. Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race is nonetheless an incredible test of endurance that attracts an entirely different type of strength from the cobbled races we’ve loved over the last few weeks. The peloton will be repeatedly flung against 34 steep climbs, wracking up over 12,000 feet of climbing a few hundred feet at a time.

Amstel is the first race for the puncheurs. They are men much smaller than the brawlers of Paris-Roubaix, with bodies honed to disobey gravity in explosive style, but they are no less impressive. The difficulty of the Amstel is purely physical and tactical. This week, we leave lady luck in France. Here’s what you need to know:

The Route

Amstel Gold tackles 34 climbs across 258 kilometers, but all but the final few are mere meat tenderizers, designed only to soften up the legs of the professional peloton.

The Cauberg (1.2km, 5.8%) is the site of Amstel’s real action and also serves as its finale. The race will pass over it four times, the first two early enough to be largely inconsequential. But the final two passes serve first to break up the peloton, and then to select the race’s winner.

Amstel used to finish right at the top of the Cauberg, but now there’s a 1.2km drag after its peak. A rider who finds himself more than a few seconds off the back over the top has no chance of victory.

The contenders

To win Amstel, or any of the hilly classics, a rider must be both fortified against repeated climbing efforts and able to out-muscle his competition at the finish line. Climbers with a sprint, basically. Or sprinters who can climb.

After a string of impressive rides earlier in the season, Sky’s defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski is the favorite, one of those climbers who can sprint. He’s followed closely by Orica – GreenEdge’s Michael Matthews, a sprinter who can climb. The difference between the two is subtle, but important — head to head at the finish line, Matthews would likely win. But he’ll have to hold on over the Cauberg first.

Orica, which is coming off its Paris-Roubaix high, also has Simon Gerrans available should the race unfold unfavorably for Matthews.

The revelation of last year’s Ardennes was a young Frenchman named Julian Alaphilippe. The Etixx – Quick-Step rider was second at both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne. He’ll be backed up by the winner of Wednesday’s Brabantse-Pijl, young Czech Petr Vacok.

BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert was the last rider to sweep the Ardennes, and won Amstel in 2014. Despite a recent run-in with a couple drunks he does appear to be on-form for his favorite races of the year.

Cannondale’s Tom Jelte-Slagter is one of the best puncheurs on the planet and is always dangerous in a finish that features a steep, relatively short climb. He’ll ride alongside Simon Clarke, who is riding well after the Tour of the Basque Country. Watch for American Ardennes specialist Alex Howes to give it a go early.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are both sitting out this year, opening things up for a potential surprise.

Weather

Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-50s with scattered clouds. A perfect day for bike racing.