A hectic week of frantic cycling in and around the Ardennes region begins, as ever, with one of Dutch cycling’s greatest treats; Amstel Gold. Forming part of late spring’s famous triptych, the next eight days will be crammed with some of the season’s most aggressive riding as the peloton tackle Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in almost a single week. Each race favours a slightly different style of rider, though they each demand an individual to be strong, combative and intelligent in pursuit of victory. Today’s task is a 261km journey from Maastricht to Berg en Terblijt, taking in narrow roads on constant undulating terrain, creating a bunch who sees its anxieties grow as they seek to peer around the next corner. Positioning shall be a key factor for those hoping to perform well at Amstel Gold, making the battle for the front an intense contest as soon as the starting flag has been waved. A total of 35 officially recognised hills feature on course, few of which would invoke much trepidation normally, but mole hills become mountains once the race passes 200km of sustained racing. Suffice to say, Amstel Gold often becomes an attritional affair which builds tension ahead of the final attack on the finishing climb, but this course is slight different than normal. Instead, the finish in 2017 should allow a greater number of riders to come into play, favouring the strongest sprinters who are capable of surviving a day like this in good shape. Gone are the days where riders sought to put everything down on the final ascent of the Cauberg in order to win, though the iconic hill does feature throughout the day, 2017 looks set to be a reduced sprint amongst the toughest of riders.
Michael Matthews is one of several riders expected to challenge once again for the win at Amstel Gold, despite having never managed to convert several good showings at this race into a victory thus far. The Australian has continued to develop his ability to survive hard days in the saddle, able to emerge when it matters most at the end of the stage, easily putting rivals to the sword with his blistering pace. Matthews is not scared of joining a breakaway either, making him a crucial rider to mark for those also seeking victory, as it is unlikely any move capable of staying away could feature anyone faster than himself. Though his previous form here is exciting, the course changes will make it harder for Matthews to gain an advantage over pure sprinters, as the finish is no longer upon or shortly after the Cauberg.
Fabio Felline has been on the rise since last year and will enter today’s race with plenty of confidence that a podium place is well within his capabilities right now, if not more. His efforts during the early part of the season have showcased his durability for arduous contests, able to match some of the best in the world as the pedal revolutions tick higher and higher. The Italian is another who is dangerous due to his ability to win from either a bunch kick or breakaway move, so will not be afforded a great deal of freedom by the bigger favourites. However, his greatest issue is that he is not on par with the elite climbers and sprinters, meaning any move he makes will need to be intelligent enough to compensate for this difference in ability.
Bryan Coquard finished an impressive fourth place at last year’s edition of Amstel Gold, only losing out to Sonny Colbrelli in the sprint for third place on the day. The French rider possesses an immense turn of speed, often emerging late from behind his more powerful rivals, accelerating past them as the finish line rapidly approaches. Coquard looks to have developed a greater degree of strength and determination to stay in contention when things get tough at races such as these; with last year’s result testament to that fact. He may not have enjoyed an eye-catching Spring like others here, but the general feeling amongst those in the sport, is that Coquard has the form necessary right now to win Amstel Gold.
Sonny Colbrelli continues to surprise people with his results during the early part of 2017, appearing here off the back of victory at De Brabantse Pijl last week. Colbrelli has good form at Amstel Gold in recent years and should find that the course alterations play into his hands more than any other major contender present. Also, his team features defending champion and two time winner Enrico Gasparotto, able to guide him through the maelstrom with his wealth of experience at Amstel Gold. Colbrelli is one of the best at surviving tough races, demonstrated clearly by his recent showings at Milan – San Remo; one of the hardest races a rider can face each year. With a strong combination of individual and team strength, there is a great chance that the trophy will remain in Italian hands for another year.
Greg Van Avermaet should be another rider who finds the recent route chances favourable for his chances of winning Amstel Gold. Currently enjoying an incredible year of form and successes, the Belgian hero will still emerge motivated as ever to perform well enough to challenge for the day’s honours. Assuming that the main bunch is slowly whittled down throughout the day, it is hard to see Greg Van Avermaet being absent from such a group and from that position he is currently unbeatable in a reduced sprint.
Alejandro Valverde is a rider who shall not be overjoyed by the finish no longer being determined by the testing Cauberg, so will need a new plan if he is to succeed today. The start of the season has proven fruitful for the veteran Spanish rider and many are hinting that he is in some of the best Spring form ever seen from him. As there is no longer the steep springboard on offer to catapult him to the finish line, he is now another rider seeking to be part of a much smaller group which battles it out for the victory. Should the situation arise, then Valverde is one of the hardest men to beat in a flat sprint after such a long and gruelling race.
Philippe Gilbert delivered a miraculous victory at De Ronde Van Vlaanderen a few weeks ago and has been a dominant force during the last couple of months. The Belgian champion will however struggle to replicate his previous dominance at this specific race, as the Cauberg lacking finale makes it much tougher for Gilbert to drop riders who can sprint faster than himself before the line. It is likely that he will need a much more attritional day in order to improve his odds of winning, but it is not impossible to see Gilbert once again becoming champion, especially given his current form.
Outsiders who are worth watching throughout the day are; Enrico Gasparotto, Ben Swift, Michael Albasini, Diego Ulissi, Tim Wellens and Simon Gerrans.
1st Sonny Colbrelli 2nd Michael Matthews 3rd Fabio Felline