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Why Amstel Gold Race could be even better this year

Dutch classic will be contested on a closed circuit designed to salvage the event and conserve the essence of race.

It could be hard to match the thrilling editions of 2019, but seeing Amstel Gold Race on the calendar is already a victory.

A year after being one of the season’s top COVID casualties in 2020, the Amstel Gold Race is back.

Mathieu van der Poel won’t be there but Wout van Aert and Primož Roglič headline a stacked Jumbo-Visma squad looking for a win on “home” roads. Annemiek van Vleuten returns to try to settle the score with Kasia Niewiadoma.

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A technical circuit course packed with deceptively challenging hills and a five-star starting list for both the men’s and women’s races adds up to a potentially explosive and thrilling edition of the Netherlands’ biggest one-day race.

With forecasters calling for cool spring temperatures and a slight northerly breeze, the peloton is bracing for action-packed racing that could come down to the closing kilometers.

“I think the new course makes it harder for the pure climbers to stamp their authority on the race,” said BikeExchange sport director Matt White. “I think it will still be a very aggressive race and I think we’ll still see the same type of winners anyway. It will likely be a select group that gets away in the final or a reduced group sprint and, as a team, we have both of those options covered.”

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Could the circuit course deliver an even more explosive race than the traditional route?

It depends on how the teams race it. Sometimes circuit racing can be more controlled, but with the mix of climbing and narrow roads, the race could blow up with a big group going away for good.

It could be challenging to live up to the thrilling editions in 2019 in both the men’s and women’s races.

The stage is set, however, for a pair of highly unpredictable races.

Big names converge in Limburg

The 2019 women’s race came down to a two-up sprint between Annemiek van Vleuten and Katarzyna Niewiadoma. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Amstel Gold Race unofficially kicks off “Ardennes Week,” though, technically, the hills surrounding the Limburg region are not geographically part of the Belgian Ardennes. Yet the type of terrain is so similar that many bundle the three one-day races together in a tidy package to wrap up the spring classics season.

Big favorites include van Vleuten (Movistar) and defending champion Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) headline a deep field where anyone can win.

“We do the lap seven times which will start to weigh towards the final, especially because the climbs follow in fast succession,” said Liv Racing sport director Lars Boom. “As soon as the race is on, we will have to go along. Such a local lap reminds me of a World Championships.”

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On the men’s side, the race draws a different style of rider than the brawlers who dominated the northern classics so far. There are a few holdovers due to the rescheduling of Paris-Roubaix, including van Aert and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation).

Amstel Gold is a race where a rider like van Aert can win as well as the more explosive, climber-type riders who pack a kick at the end of a long effort. Recent former winners include Philippe Gilbert, Enrico Gasparotto and Michael Valgren, all riders who can get over the hills and finish it off with a spicy sprint.

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“Amstel Gold Race is a race I really love, it is always a really hard race, many riders arrive in top shape and this year could be even harder with the new course,” said BikeExchange’s Michael Matthews. “I have finished on the podium and also in fifth place before in this race, so I know how to be there in the final, but it always just comes down to timing and how good the legs are in those last kilometers after such a hard day.”

One name missing in the men’s field — 2019 winner Mathieu van der Poel. After a gut-wrenching loss at Tour of Flanders, he’s taking a break before racing mountain bikes into June.

Closed circuit to save the race

The men’s peloton at Amstel Gold Race 2019. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

After seeing its race postponed and then canceled outright in 2020, race organizers came up with a 16.9km closed circuit that conserves the spirit of the Amstel Gold Race, but eases health worries among politicians and health authorities. Fans will not be allowed to line the route, meaning that the raucous parties in Valkenburg and at the finish line will be on hold this year.

“Two years ago, we had the best race ever with van der Poel. Last year, we had nothing,” race organizer Leo van Vliet told VeloNews. “We will be very happy on Sunday once we race again.”

Van Vliet was able to follow the blueprint used in previous editions of world championships, which are usually contested over circuit courses. Though he could not stray too far from the closed circuit, meaning some of the iconic climbs and roads of the route had to be culled, the essence of Amstel Gold Race remains intact.

“We have a nice circuit that will make for a good race,” van Vliet said. “It’s a little bit shorter than normal, but we still have about 2,800m of climbing. It’s a race for the big riders.”

The races will be held on a 16.9km circuit featuring loops over three key climbs — the Geulhemmerberg, the Bemelerberg and the Cauberg.

Organizers had already tweaked the finish line a few years, moving the line further away from the Cauberg. Two years ago, they added a new twist, with a deviation off the circuit on the final lap that tackles the Bemelerberg.

The elite women and men will race seven and 13 laps, respectively, on the circuit, with each lap climbing the Geulhemmerberg, the Bemelerberg and the Cauberg. The final circuit of the men’s race will omit the Cauberg.

The women’s race starts at 8.30 a.m. and the finish around noon. The men’s race starts at 12.15 pm and is expected to finish at around 5.45 pm (all times CET).