Attention shifts this weekend from the cobbled pavé and hellingen which set the scene for Paris-Roubax and Ronde Van Vlaanderen; riders will now face the soaring hills of the Ardennes region instead. Not only does the terrain alter for this triple header of races in one week, but the peloton will also see its cobblestone strongmen replaced by the lithe mountain men and puncheurs who excel on the steep slopes of the Dutch cycling heartland.
A compact route means the riders will often encounter the same hills and roads throughout the race, as organisers take advantage of this small region’s limited, yet arduous terrain. A possible contender will need to conquer 34 climbs in total; most of which lead almost immediately into the next due to the restricted choice of roads here. Overall, the peloton will cover 258km of riding from the start in Maastricht to the final climb over the Cauberg and onto the short finishing straight into Valkenburg. Similar to how the Tour of Flanders takes advantage of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont by sending the riders up them more than once, the Cauberg is not just the finishing climb but is also present a further three times during the race.
Unlike the monuments we have already seen raced so far this year, Amstel Gold does not afford its riders an opportunity to warm up with several kilometres of rolling terrain. Instead, the day’s opening climb appears just past the 9km mark; the Slingerberg. Though the first climb does feature early in the day, only five hills will be summited en route to their first ascent of the Cauberg after 54km of riding. From this point onwards life for the peloton will begin getting hectic; the following 111.6km takes the form of a circuit which includes 16 further climbs and the second ascent of the Cauberg.
Apart from the climbs, the main challenge is the constant stress of the narrow, twisting roads. Positioning at the bottom of the climbs is a key ingredient in any successful Amstel Gold bid and the role of team support in the constant battle for position on this course cannot be underestimated. Crashes are certain to occur and the race is certainly not won purely on brute strength; luck is necessary here as in any one-day race. This part of the race is usually not too aggressive, consisting more of a long, steady chase behind to the certain breakaway which will have cemented by now. However, the many climbs gradually take their toll on the legs, making life even harder as they navigate narrow roads and road furniture which require constant focus and attention; this race is extremely stressful throughout. Once this loop is completed, the bunch will be directed onto another circuit, this time 71.3km long and bolstering 9 further hills; including the Cauberg’s third cameo.
By this point in time, anxiety surrounding positioning of team leaders, keeping breakaways on a tight leash and preventing dangerous riders from vanishing up the road will all contribute towards an edgy atmosphere in the bunch. Significant efforts will be made to keep things under control as they ride over the Eyserbosweg, Fromberg and Keutenberg ahead of their last ascent of the Cauberg which forms the day’s finale. From here they start yet another circuit, but this time the last, an 18.5km lap which begins building the crescendo which we are likely to see from the favourites. Along this loop comes Geulhemmerweg and Bemelerberg with a little under 8km remaining; from these two hills the riders will head onwards to contest the win on the fourth pass of the Cauberg.
It is with only 2.5km remaining that the peloton will ride onto the lower slopes of the Cauberg, turning the approaching corner to suddenly see the tarmac road snaking skywards ahead of them. This 1200m long stretch will see the favourites attempt to inflict some final hurt over the average 5.8% gradient; big digs are expected where the maximum hits 12%. If this was not already enough to crown the day’s winner, 1800m still separates them from the finish once they summit the Cauberg. Anyone who has distanced themselves on the climb will need to dig yet further if they have any chance of staying clear of the pursers; many of which are likely to finish faster on the flat.
There is no doubt that Amstel Gold is going to be a testing race to control for the big teams aiming to set the finish up for their team leader. Whereas once it finished atop the Cauberg, the modern incarnation of the race leaves uncertainty as to who will be in the mix, even if delivered into perfect position by his teammates. Nowadays, the long flat section following the final climb means it is still possible to haul yourself into contention and possibly sprint past the lead man on the way to taking a win. This requires huge amounts of power after the energy sapping Cauberg and is made even harder by the difficulty of getting any sort of cohesive work rate from a small chasing group.
Once again upon heading into the Ardenne’s classics, Philippe Gilbert enters the race as the standout favourite; 2015 offering him the chance to win Amstel Gold for the fourth time. The Belgian has looked in good condition so far this year and obviously has enough history with this race to ensure he will be present at the front of affairs come the end. It appears his schedule has been intended to tailor his form so it peaks for this week in the Ardennes; one which he has previously dominated when winning all three races in 2011. Though Gilbert’s teammate Ben Hermans prevented him from winning Brabantse Pijl, his form was evident and would have been well fancied to win had he been given the chance. Assuming everything has gone swimmingly before turning onto the Cauberg, Gilbert is bound to be seen getting away from the remaining peloton, but whether he can stay clear on the finish’s concluding flat section remains to be seen.
Alejandro Valverde is equally fancied upon this type of finish, a man who has taken both Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Flèche Wallonne in recent history, but never Amstel Gold. The Spaniard has had a solid opening to the season, though one which lacks the same calibre of wins as last year when entering Amstel Gold. Many will point at Valverde’s failings when it came to winning the likes of Tour of Oman, Volta a Catalunya and Strade Bianche, but misfortune was often the architect of these missed opportunities. Though a gap in form is likely to have been formed between Gilbert and Valverde, it seems foolish to discount a rider with the ability of Valverde entirely because of another’s condition. As mentioned previously, this race is notoriously difficult to control and all it takes is Gilbert to be placed one too many wheels down on the Cauberg for Valverde to get the jump on him. If Valverde can anticipate others well enough to stay in contention by the time they reach the finishing straight, the Movistar rider is quick enough on paper to beat all other race favourites.
Nobody will wish to bring Michael Matthews to the line alongside them this year; the Australian looking in imperious form during 2015 so far. In the last year, Matthews has really begun to start living up to expectations, taking results which have long since been expected of him on the WorldTour. A man known for his sprinting, what makes Matthews such a threat to other’s however is his strength when it comes to hanging in with the climbers and being present at the finale to contest the win. Whether you cast your eye over his performance at Brabantse Pijl, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Nice or even Pais Vasco; it is clear that the Orica-GreenEDGE leader will be a major threat if he has not been dispatched with on the Cauberg. Should he be present in a group which enters onto the finishing straight together, it is difficult to envision anyone having the legs to beat the tough Australian.
Still finding what he is best suited to in the realm of professional bike racing is Michal Kwiatkowski, the reigning World Champion and burgeoning talent of the Ardennes. The last two years have proven that the young Pole has a certain affinity for this week of racing which encompasses Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Fléche Wallonne; along with Amstel Gold. He has placed either on the podium or in the top 5 at each of these races in the previous two years, but a win has eluded him thus far. In terms of skills required to win this race, Kwiatkowski possesses them all; puncheur efforts, strong in a sprint and even capable to hold off a chasing pack alone if required.
Amstel Gold will offer us an insight as to the current condition of one-day specialist Dan Martin; a rider who has already taken Liége-Bastogne-Liége & Lombardia. Martin reads a race well, confident enough to know where is best to attack and who to anticipate should anyone make a move before he gets to make his mark. Though he does not necessarily suit Amstel Gold on paper, the Irishman should be a likely face once the peloton make the final turn onto the Cauberg. He can sustain a solid tempo on this sort of terrain and could be underestimated by his rivals; allowing him to launch the sort of solo attacks which we saw from him at Volta a Catalunya last month. His ability to sprint is documented, but is not quite on the same level as that of Valverde and Kwiatkowski; he will have to be riding solo or part of a lesser group to benefit the most it would seem.
Jelle Vanendert had a great week at this series of Ardenne’s races last year; 2nd at Amstel Gold, 6th at Fléche Wallonne and 11th at Liége-Bastogne-Liége. He appears to pull form out of nowhere for these three races and cannot be discounted from featuring prominently as the race builds to a crescendo, but he does not suit the current finish as well as others nowadays. As the winner is no longer crowned atop the Cauberg, Vanendert would need a healthy margin to stay away on the last flat section after summating the climb; this seems a stretch too far for him. With Vanendert failing to suit Amstel Gold as much as he would like to think, Lotto-Soudal can switch focus to supporting Frenchman Tony Gallopin if so wished. He looks a real contender for these Ardennes races and it appears his career is building gradually to taking a win of this calibre soon. Though some suggest he is not in top shape, Brabantse Pijl displayed he is not far from it, taking fourth place behind Hermans, Matthews and Gilbert. He has the tenacity to attack hard uphill in order to remain in contention, but what really favours Gallopin against others in a reduced group is his fast finish; an outsider to watch.
BMC are another team which harbours a potent ‘Plan B’ if required; this coming in the shape of Greg Van Avermaet. Heading here on the back of two third places at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Avermaet is clearly in fantastic condition right now and will be a crucial lieutenant to Gilbert’s hopes of winning. If the opportunity does arise however, Avermaet can certainly climb with the best, and most dangerously of all, has a vicious sprint after such an arduous race.
It seems strange that few have mentioned Joaquim Rodriguez ahead of Amstel Gold; especially as the Spaniard looked tailor-made for this one-day race at one point in time. Runner-up in 2011, Rodriguez must have felt confident of adding this race to his palmares by now. Sadly for him, the recent alterations to the finale means he can no longer aim to win thanks to a summit finish atop the Cauberg. Though he has taken victories in the past which come after a final climb, these tend to offer a downhill run to the line, allowing him to maintain speed and keep away from those behind. Distancing the rest on the final climb is possible, but it would be an incredible achievement by Rodriguez to maintain it all the way into the finish.
Another man who has shown previous form here in the Ardennes is Colombian Sergio Henao; finishing second to Daniel Moreno in 2013’s Fléche Wallonne. As a climber, he certainly has a chance to mix it with the best on the Cauberg, but much like Rodriguez will be left in the dust of any possible sprint finish.
Quite bizarrely, the history books prove that the Italian Enrico Gasparotto has a real knack for finishing well in this race. Having won it in 2012, he has also finished within the top ten on four occasions alongside his unexpected win. Wanty will ride solely for him, so he shall have no qualms in regards to support, though it is unclear how much depth the squad around him will possess. Despite not showing a great deal of form in 2o15, Gasparotto does suit this terrain and should be a contender if he makes it into any front group which has to sprint for the win.
1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Michal Kwiatkowski 3rd Philippe Gilbert