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Amstel Gold Race is usually the most unpredictable of the Ardennes classics. Will Orica-GreenEDGE finally manage to take the win?

Photo: Sirotti




16.04.2016 @ 19:29 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

On Sunday, the cycling-mad Dutch population will get their only chance to see the world's best riders battle it out on their own roads when they open up the doors to a festival of hills, crashes and narrow, twisting roads. As an amalgamation between a Flemish classic and the tougher races later in the week, the Amstel Gold Race is the first of the three Ardennes classics and marks the transition from the world of the strong cobbles specialists to a paradise for punchy, explosive climbers.


It is somewhat of a paradox that a country with an extremely rich cycling history, a big ProTeam, a host of some of the most exciting talents and a very well-developed cycling infrastructure only has very limited opportunities to showcase its finest riders in a head-to-head battle with the world elite. Nonetheless, the Netherlands are left with only one day in the spotlight of the cycling world. On Sunday that day has finally arrived.


The lack of real highlights on the Dutch cycling calendar is a reflection of the country's late inclusion in the list of cycling powerhouses. While the tradition of competitive cycling in France, Belgium and Italy goes back to the late 1800s and the early 1900s, Dutch cyclists only entered the world elite much later. Belgium won their first Tour de France title in 1912 but their northern neighbours had to wait until Jan Janssen's 1968 triumph before they finally took home a victory in the world's greatest cycling race.


Hence, it is no surprise that the country's biggest cycling event is a rather young affair. First held in 1966, the race is not shrouded by the history of its fellow classics but the event has seen a rapid rise through the ranks. Even though the first edition nearly got cancelled and the course changed several times, the race quickly grew to fame and drew the attention of the biggest riders of the time. Unsurprisingly, the Belgian neighbours dominated the early years, with Eddy Merckx winning the race twice, but during the late 70s and early 80s the home nation stamped its authority on the race, partly due to Jan Raas' record five victories in the event. It was no surprise to see the UCI include it on its first World Cup calendar in 1989 and the race has had its natural place on both the Pro- and WorldTour calendars since their inceptions.


It is another paradox that the Amstel Gold Race signals the start of the second, hilly part of the classics season. Held in one of flattest countries in Europe, the race has an almost unnatural role as the first one-day target for some of the world's most punchy climbers. However, the Southern Limburg province distinguishes itself from the rest of the country due to its hilly nature and the area is tailor-made for entertaining bike races.


As the first of the three Ardennes classics, it is a race for riders with a punch on the short, steep hills, with the landmark climb of Cauberg perfectly characterizing the kind of challenges that the race offers. Nonetheless, its nature is different from the ones found in Belgium next week, and the Dutch classic is somewhat of an amalgamation between the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. With no less than 34 climbs, no cobbles and more than 4000m of climbing, it has the same hilly nature as La Doyenne in the Wallonian province. At the same time, however, the race is held on narrow, twisting roads, thus making positioning the key to a good result, and the climbs are mostly no longer than 2000m - two attributes which make the race much more comparable with De Ronde in Flanders. As it is the case in the biggest Flemish race, the nature of the road and the constant positioning battle often turn the race into a bit of a crashfest and in this race no one can underestimate the importance of course knowledge.


While the race marks a changing of the guard with the strong men giving way for the climbers, the substitution is a much more gradual process than one might think. With the importance of positioning, most teams include a number of Flemish classics specialists in their rosters for Amstel, and some of the cobbled classics experts have often chosen to squeeze the last result out of their early-season condition in the Dutch race. More climbers will join for Fleche Wallonne in which the climbs are longer and the finale much harder while few cobbles specialists will be back on the start line on Wednesday. Finally, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is almost a pure climber's race and with riders from the Giro del Trentino joining the line-up, the transition has been completed. Almost all of the world's best climbers and GC specialists will be gathered on the start line in Liege which won't be the case in Sunday's race.


In the past, the race was held after Liege-Bastogne-Liege but a reform of the calendar has made it the first of the three Ardennes classics. This makes the progression of toughness much more natural and the overall layout of the classics season much better. Even though it is not a monument, it is one of the very few races that are held over a monument distance and it ranks just below the five biggest classics. Nonetheless, the race remains firmly placed below Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the Ardennes hierarchy and all non-Dutch Amstel contenders with a realistic chance to win in Liege, would always swap a win in the Netherlands for a victory in cycling's oldest classic.


Last year Philippe Gilbert was aiming for a fourth win and after a late break with his teammate Greg Van Avermaet had been neutralized in the run-in to Cauberg, he seemed to be on track when he powered up the landmark climb. However, Michael Matthews dug extremely deep to stay on his wheel and as the pair crested the summit together, it was obvious that the Belgian couldn’t drag the sprinter to the line. Hence, a regrouping took place and the race came down to an 18–rider sprint where Michal Kwiatkowski timed things perfectly to come from behind and win the race ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Matthews who had gone too far into the red zone on the climb to produce his usual sprint. Kwiatkowski will be back in an attempt to win his second WorldTour race of the year and he will again be up against Matthews. However, Valverde will skip the race for the first time in years as he takes on a lighter Ardennes campaign in his build-up to the Giro.


The course

The toughness of the course may put the race into the category of Ardennes classics but when it comes to the overall build-up of the race, it is more like a Flemish race. Like the cobbled races in the cycling-mad Belgian region, the Amstel Gold Race makes almost excessive use of a very small hilly area in a mostly flat region. This is certainly no point-to-point race as the course zigzags its way through a tiny part of the Netherlands, making use of the same roads several times and going up the same climbs on more than one occasion. The riders are never too far away from the starting point of Maastricht or the finishing city of Valkenburg and the race returns to the finish line several times before the end of the race.


The roads in the region are all tiny and narrow and the Netherlands is a densely populated country. The race runs through many suburbs and villages. With pressure on land being so great, many Dutch houses do not have garages and cars are left parked in the street. There are also many traffic-calming obstacles such as pinches, chicanes and speed humps, and further obstacles such as roundabouts and traffic islands. Crashes are a brutal but unavoidable part of the race and it is of crucial importance to know when and where to position oneself ahead of climbs and windy stretches.


What characterizes the race are its many climbs that are littered throughout the course. In itself, none of them are very challenging but with 34 ascents spread over 248.7km, they come in very quick succession and leave no room for recovery.


In 2003, the organizers chose to move the finish line from its traditional location in Maastricht to the top of the famous Cauberg climb. Since then the landmark of the race has been its explosive finish on the 1200m long ascent with an average gradient of 5.8% and maximum 12% section.


However, the difficulty of the finish made for a much more controlled race in which the favourites mostly chose to save their power for the final uphill sprint. In an attempt to open up the race, the race organization once again changed the script of the finish. After a dress rehearsal at the 2012 world championships road race - which was won by Philippe Gilbert - the finish line was located 1800 metres further on from the top of the climb for the 2013 edition, thus giving riders the possibility to get back in contention after being dropped on the ascent. Organizers hoped that this would spur on some of the favourites to attack from afar but neither the world championships nor the 2013, 2014 and 2015 editions saw the main contenders play their cards before the Cauberg. However, things have come back together on the final flat section in some of the races, opening the door for more potential contenders. This year the organizers have stuck to the new format.


The race's main feature is the Cauberg climb which the riders do four times. Up until 2012, however, the penultimate passage was located quite far from the finish as the riders ended the race by doing a lap of a circuit that included the steep Eyserbosweg and Keutenberg which were both located rather close to the finish. As part of the new course, however, the race now ends with a lap of the 19km circuit used for the 2012 Worlds and that circuit is far easier than the previous one. In addition to Cauberg, it only includes the climbs of Geulhemmerweg and Bemelerberg and those two ascents are far easier than Eyserbosweg and Keutenberg. Now Eyserbosweg comes 39.4km from finish while there is still 31.1km to go by the time, the riders crest the summit of the Keutenberg. This makes it much harder to use these key climbs for late attacks and there is no doubt that the race is way easier than it was in its previous incarnation.


As always, the 248.7km race - which is slightly shorter than last year’s and includes the same climbs in the same order - starts in the main city of the province, Maastricht. From there, the riders will head into the hills located west of the city, and the race will wind around in a rather small area close to the Belgian-Dutch and German-Dutch borders, taking in the same roads multiple times.


The riders will have to tackle no less than 34 climbs on a long day of constant elimination and unlike most of its fellow classics, the race does not start off with a long, flat opening stretch. On the contrary, the climbs are scattered over the entire course, and the day's first ascent, the Slingerberg, is located only 6.8km from the official start. Many climbs will be climbed more than once, and the race's landmark climb Cauberg will be visited not less than four times.


The terrain is an invitation to aggressive racing and so it usually takes a bit of time for the early break to be established. Due to the strains of this hard race, they often get a very big gap before the key teams start to chase. The advantage often grows to more than 10 minutes before the main teams come to the fore. After 51.5km, the riders will go up the Cauberg for the first time after having done five climbs in the first part of the race. Then they will do a big 111.6km loop with 16 climbs, ending with the second passage 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 bid and the role of team support in the constant battle for position and detailed knowledge of the course cannot be underestimated. Crashes are certain to occur and the race is certainly not won purely on brute strength. This part of the race is usually not very aggressive but is more of a long, steady chase behind the breakaway. However, the many climbs gradually take their toll on the legs and the narrow roads require constant focus and attention which makes the race extremely stressful. Crashes are almost destined to happen at this point of the race.


The next circuit is 71.3km long and contains 8 climbs in addition to the Cauberg. This is usually where the race really starts as it is time to start the attacks. Several teams want the race to be hard or have teammates up the roads when their captains make their move and so this is often a very aggressive phase of the race. A few years ago, the first moves were often launched from a bit further out but in recent years the big moves have come inside the final 50km. It is important for the major teams to have riders in every move to avoid getting on the back foot and having to chase. As recent editions have proved, this is the perfect time for the lieutenants to try their hand.  At the same time, the constant repetition of climbs and stress of keeping a good position make it a gradual elimination race and from now on the peloton will only get smaller and smaller.


In the past, the favourites often played their cards on the Eyserbosweg (1100m, 8.1%)  and Keutenberg (700m, 9.4%) and often a rather small group emerged after the top. With their new location much farther from the finish, they no longer play the same kind of important role. The fight for position going into those ascents is still intense and they play a big role in whittling down the peloton. However, the main favourites are likely to wait for the final climb up the Cauberg but for several very strong riders, the only chance is to attack. For them, these two climbs and the penultimate passage of the Cauberg could be the key to the winning move and we can expect a fierce pursuit between a strong break and the ever-dwindling peloton over the final 20km. In 2013, Roman Kreuziger launched the race-winning move when they passed the Cauberg for the third time.


Having tackled the old finish with the Eyserbosweg, the Fromberg, the Keutenberg and the Cauberg, the riders hit the finish line and will now start the 18.5km finishing loop. The circuit includes the Geulhemmerweg climb (1000m, 6.2%) with 16.5km remaining and the Bemelerberg (900m, 5.0%) with only 7.8km to go. They are not very hard and not really suited to attacks from the peloton at a time when the race is usually very fast. After the top of the latter, it's a false flat for a few kilometres before the fast descent on a long straight road that leads to the bottom of the Cauberg 2.5km from the line. Here the riders will tackle the famous turn that leads them onto the slopes. The ascent is steepest in its lower section before leveling out near the top. 1800m from the line, the riders will crest the summit as they will make a sharp left-hand turn before continuing along a long straight, slightly rising road to the finish.


If the breaks have been brought back, it will be a huge fight for position to get onto the climb in the best possible position. Here the favourites are expected to battle it out and they have to make their moves on the lower slopes which are clearly the toughest. If one rider manages to get clear, he has a big chance of making it to the finish as there is usually a lack of cooperation in the different groups when they hit the flat section. Here a regrouping can take place but the door is also open for a surprise move from one of the outsiders who may benefit from the tactical battle to get clear and take an upset win in what can be an unpredictable and uncontrollable finale of the biggest Dutch race.




The weather

As usual, the weather is a key ingredient and with the Amstel Gold Race sharing some similarities with the Tour of Flanders, it is no surprise that it will be the same on Sunday. The wind has the potential to wreak havoc on the peloton in certain places and a rainy day will only make for more nervousness on the narrow, twisting descents. Furthermore, the wind direction in the final flat kilometre will be crucial in determining whether a lone rider has a big chance to stay away.


In the last few years, the riders have had great conditions for the Amstel Gold Race. This year it will be a mixed affair. On one hand, bright sunshine will be on the menu but a maximum temperature of just 10 degrees means that it will be a cold affair. Furthermore, there is a 20% chance of rain for the entire afternoon.


There will be a moderate wind from a northwesterly direction and the riders will of course have all kinds of wind direction as they zigzag their way around the hilly, twisty Limburg province. On the finishing circuit, there will be a cross-headwind in the first part and a cross-tailwind on the Bemelerberg. A crosswind leads to the bottom of the Cauberg. In the final flat section, there will be a cross-headwind.


The favourites

The favourites for the Ardennes classics all have to be found within the same pool of riders but the races are all quite different and suit different types of riders. While Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a very tough affair that tend more towards being a race for the real climbers, and the unique finish to Fleche Wallonne restrict the number of potential winners to just a handful of very explosive, pure climbers, the Amstel Gold Race is more of a race for the punchy classics specialists and due to the new finish, it is probably the one with the broadest range of potential winners.


The climbs are so short that the punchiest riders are able to sprint almost all the way from the bottom to the top, putting the climbers at a clear disadvantage. On the other hand, the total amount of climbing and the long distance makes the race a rather tough affair that gradually eliminates the heavier guys. Depending on how the race unfolds, the door is potentially open for a wide range of riders, ranging from climbers and stage race specialists over puncheurs and even to some of the strongest sprinters who benefit from the changed finale.


Brabantse Pijl and Kreuziger’s 2013 win prove that this kind of terrain is pretty hard to control and that team tactics can always create a surprise. With the weather forecast predicting relatively windy conditions with a small chance of rain, it won’t be any easier. On the other hand, WorldTour races are usually more controlled than a race like Brabante Pijl as more big guns are aiming for the wins and have strong teams to set them up.


If the right group goes clear, a strong move can survive. In 2014, a very strong group had representation from most of the big teams and if Zdenek Stybar had not been dropped, Movistar had probably been almost alone to do the chase. In 2013, no one wanted to assist Cannondale in the chase and this allowed Kreuziger to stay away. Last year it was a strong group with Jakob Fuglsang and Greg Van Avermaet in the finale but as the latter was not allowed to work, the group was brought back.


In the last few years, everything has revolved around BMC. Philippe Gilbert has been the pre-race favourite and his strong team has controlled things to bring their captain into the perfect position for Cauberg. This year Gilbert is far from being at 100% so the American team will probably take more of a back seat and use some of their other cards to race aggressively. At the same time, Alejandro Valverde will skip the race so Movistar will have a completely different approach.


Instead, everybody will be looking at Orica-GreenEDGE. The Australians have two potential winners of the race, Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans, and they are the team with the biggest interest in a sprint finish. No one wants to arrive at the finish with those two riders so more teams will try to ride aggressively and make things hard. This means that there is probably a bigger chance that a strong group can stay away in the finale. One the other hand, one or more key teams are likely to miss the move or feel less comfortable with their rider in the front group and history proves that the race is most likely to be decided on the Cauberg.


When the race finished at the top of the Cauberg, the race was often decided in a sprint from a select group on the steep slopes. Of course several riders tried to escape in the finale - and as Sergey Ivanov's and Frank Schleck's wins proved, it was possible to stay away - but most riders waited for a final acceleration on the climb. In principle, the race could only be won by one of the few riders that really specialize in uphill sprints, or a brave attacker that surprised the main favourites.


With the changes to the finale, the race can now potentially be won from four different scenarios. As said, it is most likely that a reduced peloton will arrive together at the bottom of the Cauberg to decide the race.

As usual the best riders will attack on the race's key climb and at the top, a very select group - potentially consisting of only a single rider - will have formed. In 2013, we were down to just three riders at the top while only Gilbert was left in 2014. In 2015, Gilbert and Michael Matthews were together at the top. In the previous finale, the race would now have been decided.


Now, however, a lot can still happen. The select group may stay away to the finish to sprint it out for the win (or a lone rider may hold on to take a solo win). There is a big chance though that the group won't work together and this opens the door for a surprise winner. As riders rejoin from behind, attacks can be launched on the false flat to the finish and as no one can expect to have domestiques left at this point, it won't be obvious who's going to chase it down. A rider who is not able to follow the best on the Cauberg but is not too far behind, can win the race in this fashion - just recall how Niki Terpstra benefited from tactics to win the 2014 Paris-Roubaix and how Jelle Vanendert managed to get back and sneak away to take second in the 2014 race. Finally, a bigger regrouping may take place which was what happened last year when Michal Kwiatkowski won a sprint.


This year all scenarios can again come into play. Importantly, there will be a cross-headwind in the finale and this tips the balance in favour of a sprint finish. It will be much harder for a single rider or a small group to stay away in these conditions. On the other hand, everything will depend on the level of team support at the top of the climb. If no one has any domestiques to organize a chase, everything can happen even with a cross-headwind.


There is little doubt that Orica-GreenEDGE is the team to beat. Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans have both been on the podium in this race and they are backed by a very strong team that includes the likes of Adam Yates and Michael Albasini who will be there in the finale. Yates is even likely to be there at the top of the Cauberg and his support will be crucial in making sure that it all comes down to a sprint from a select group. They may not get much support from rival teams and it won’t be easy to control things but with key teams always likely to miss the moves, there is a big chance that things will be together at the bottom of the final climb which is the perfect scenario for the Australians.


The big question in the team is how to share the roles. It is no secret that Gerrans and Matthews have a tainted relationship, partly because they often target the same races. At last year’s World Championships, a frustrated Matthews claimed that the pair had been sprinting against each other instead of Gerrans sacrificing himself to bring Sagan back. As this is the only Ardennes classic that Matthews will target and the one that suits Gerrans the best, it is hard to imagine that one of them will work completely for his teammate.


However, lessons have been learned from last year’s World Championships and the Orica-GreenEDGE management has probably been very focused on making a clear pre-race plan to avoid a frustrating defeat in the end. With Matthews being the faster of the pair and Gerrans being the better climber, it could be Gerrans’ task to follow moves in the finale to take the pressure off his team. Both will give it their all on the Cauberg and then they have to take stock at the top. If he is still there, Matthews will probably be protected while Gerrans will get his chance if Matthews is dropped or on his limit.


Last year Matthews was one of the two best riders on the Cauberg and this proves that he is one of the very best in this kind of terrain. However, he went too deep to follow Gilbert and this cost him in the sprint. With Gerrans to follow moves, he can be a little more conservative on the climb to stay fresher for a final dash to the line and if he is there at the finish, he will be the obvious favourite.


This year Matthews has clearly improved his climbing even more. He was very strong at Paris-Nice where he even briefly looked like a potential winner of the race. However, we have not been very impressed by his recent performances. He skipped Pais Vasco and this may have been a bad idea as he was not as strong as usual at Brabantse Pijl. He was isolated in the finale but he also missed the legs to follow the right move. Furthermore, he was dropped by Colbrelli and Lammertink on the final climb of Schavei and only made it back on the finishing straight. Amstel Gold Race is harder and longer and Cauberg is a much tougher climb. We simply doubt that Matthews will be as strong as he was last year.


Instead, we will put Simon Gerrans on top of our list of favourites. After his horrendous 2015 season, he has been back to his best all year, taking another win at the Tour Down Under and riding strongly at the recent Vuelta al Pais Vasco where only a lack of control prevented him from winning two stages in reduced bunch sprints. Among the best climbers in the race, only his teammate Matthews is faster than him. If Matthews is not there, Gerrans will be the big favourite for a sprint as he is very strong at the end of a hard race – just recall how he has beaten Peter Sagan and André Greipel in sprints in the past.


While Matthews will focus fully on the sprint, Gerrans has numerous options. He can be asked to cover the late moves and if he is there, Orica-GreenEDGE will do nothing to chase him down. He will be hard to beat on the Cauberg if he arrives there in a breakaway. He can go with the best on the Cauberg and if a few riders stay away, he will be the fastest. Finally, he will be ready to sprint if Matthews has been left behind or is no longer at 100%. In a race that is likely to be hard to control, Gerrans has more options than Matthews and so he is our favourite.


That doesn’t mean that Michael Matthews can’t win this race. He may not have been as strong as usual at Brabantse Pijl but he is a master in hitting peak condition for his big targets. If he is at the same level as he was in 2015, he won’t be dropped on the Cauberg and then he is likely to get the full support from Simon Gerrans. With that kind of lead-out, it is hard to imagine that anyone will be able to beat him in a sprint.


Michal Kwiatkowski goes into the race as the defending champion. Last year’s win is still a bit strange. The Pole had a really bad year and he was always far from his 2014 level. Still he managed to take his first big classics win but it was more due to his fast sprint than strength on the climbs. He was nowhere near the best in the Ardennes but he survived the Cauberg and in a reduced sprint he is always a danger man.


This year everybody is curious to see whether we will have the 2014 or 2015 version of Kwiatkowski. He won E3 Harelbeke which proves that he is clearly a lot better than he was last year. However, he was not as strong as expected in Flanders where bad legs forced him to attack from afar. He is likely to be stronger here as the Ardennes classics are his big goals but it remains to be seen whether he can get back to his best.


Nonetheless, he will always be a danger man in this race which is pretty easy compared to the later races. If he is at his 2014 level, he may be strong enough to drop everybody on the Cauberg. He is an aggressive rider who can join the late moves and among the favourites, he is one of the fastest in a sprint. He has options in abundance and that makes him a natural favourite.


Julian Alaphilippe was the big revelation of the classics in 2015. The Frenchman finished second in both Fleche and Liege and he could even have been on the podium in Amstel too if he had not been working for Kwiatkowski. This year he went into the Ardennes triptych with lots of uncertainty due to his bout of mononucleosis last autumn. He has had a very slow start to the year and nobody knew whether he would get fit in time for the classics.


However, Alaphilippe seems to be just as strong as he was last year. He was really impressive at Brabantse Pijl where he first went on the attack with Tim Wellens and then still had enough left to join the race-winning move. He sacrificed himself completely for Vakoc, single-handedly keeping the peloton at bay, and then still managed to finish the race in the top 10. This shows that he is again brutally strong and he may even be stronger than last year. If that’s the case, he could turn out to be the best on the Cauberg and he can win the race in lots of ways. He can ride to a solo win, come out on top in a sprint or win the race from a small group that escapes on one of the final climbs.


Sergio Henao is probably the rider who has the biggest chance to arrive solo at the finish. The Colombian was clearly the strongest on the climbs in Pais Vasco and he claims to be much stronger than he was last year. That’s no surprise as he is finally ready to build on the huge potential he showed in the one-day races in 2013. He missed the races in 2014 when Sky put him on inactive status due to strange blood values that were later proved to be due to his status as a high-altitude native and then he returned last year on the back of his horrendous crash at the 2014 Tour de Suisse where he broke his kneecap. His lack of racing meant that he suffered a bit in the long races but he was still competitive and rode to a top 10 in Liege.


There is little doubt that Fleche Wallonne is the race that suits him the best and Amstel Gold Race may be too easy for him. On the other hand, he won’t be easy to match when he uses his trademark kick on the steepest section of Cauberg. If there is little cooperation in the chase group, Henao could ride to a solo win.


We are very curious to see what Edvald Boasson Hagen can do here. The course suits him down to the ground – just recall that he was second behind Gilbert in this finale at the 2012 Worlds – but it remains to be seen how he has recovered from the cobbled classics. History shows that it is almost impossible for the cobbles contenders to be competitive at Amstel and Boasson Hagen has been riding strongly since February. Furthermore, we had expected him to be slightly stronger in the first classics even though he rode to a fine fifth in Roubaix. His form probably doesn’t allow him to go on the attack but if he is there at the top of the Cauberg, he will be one of the favourites. Unfortunately, he rarely sprints very well at the end of a long race.


Sonny Colbrelli has been the dominant figure in the Italian one-day races for a few years but he has never had much success in other countries. His 2015 season was marred by health issues but now he seems to be ready to become the international star that he really deserves to be. This year he has improved his climbing massively and he has been impossible to drop in the hardest Italian classics. He was brutally strong at Volta Limburg Classic where he won the sprint for second and only missed out on victory due to a hopeless tactical situation where he was up against five BMC riders. Most recently, he was very strong in Brabantse Pijl where he was the best of the peloton on the final Schavei climb as he even dropped Matthews before being brought back in the final 200m.


Colbrelli has been in the top 10 at Milan-Sanremo several times and so he can handle the distance. The finale suits him excellently and the only question is whether he can still be competitive in such a hard and hard race. If he can, he will be one of the favourites in a sprint.


Petr Vakoc has been one of the big revelations of the 2016 season. The Czech has had a breakthrough year and has been flying since February. When he rode to an impressive solo win in a brutal stage at last year’s Tour of Britain, it was already clear that he was destined for greatness but it is the 2016 season that has really proved his worth. He became the first rider to win Classic Sud-Ardeche and Drome Classic in the same year, two hilly French one-day races that are held in the same weekend. He rode very well in Strade Bianche and he did an excellent job for Martin in Catalonia.


On Wednesday, he won Brabantse Pijl in impressive fashion and this naturally makes him one of the favourites here. On the other hand, this race is both longer and harder and it remains to be seen how he will handle the distance. He can win the race from numerous scenarios as he can both attack and go for the sprint but it remains to be seen whether the team will ride for him or Alaphilippe if a bigger group arrives at the finish. On paper, the Frenchman is probably a bit faster and this means that Vakoc may have to move a bit earlier.


Movistar are here without Alejandro Valverde but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be competitive. They have several excellent climbers who will try to blow the race to pieces. Their best card is probably Giovanni Visconti who gets a rare chance to ride for himself. He rode excellently in support of Quintana in Pais Vasco and then went on to win Klasika Primavera after a dominant Movistar showing. This race really suits him as he can go on the attack and is very fast in a sprint, both from a breakaway and from a bigger group.


Enrico Gasparotto is a former winner of this race but he won the race when it had the old finish. The new finale suits him less as he is better suited to an uphill sprint. However, he is clearly at an excellent level in 2016. Already in Catalonia, it was evident that he was on track for big things as he did surprisingly well in the high mountains and he was very strong at Brabantse Pijl where he may have won the race if he had not made a tactical mistake by following Gallopin in the finale. He has the right skills for this race as he is strong on the climbs and fast in a sprint and so he can win the race in most scenarios.


In the last few years, Philippe Gilbert has been the dominant figure on the Cauberg. The climb suits him down to the ground and when he is at 100%, it is almost impossible to match the three-time winner here. However, he has had a very difficult year. He crashed in the opening weekend, fell ill in March and had to skip Milan-Sanremo. When he finished third at Volta Limburg Classic, he admitted that his form was not good enough and that it would be hard to be fit in time for Amstel Gold Race. Since then, his strange training altercation which left him with a broken finger, forced him to miss Brabantse Pijl and we simply doubt that he will be strong enough to make a difference in the finale. He is still fast in a sprint though so he will have options if a bigger group arrives even if several riders are faster than him.


Fabio Felline has always been destined for great things in the classics but he has never had any big results. However, he has improved massively in the last two years and now he may be strong enough to be there at the end of this race. The final two classics are too hard for him but if he can cope with the distance, this one suits him down to the ground. After an illness-marred start to the season, he is now back on form as he proved with a solid showing in Pais Vasco. Last year he was tried when he arrived here but now he will be a lot fresher. He will be one of the favourites for a sprint and has proved that he can even beat Matthews.


We are very curious to see how Ben Swift will do here. The Brit has always been an excellent climber but this year he has probably been better than ever. Most were impressed when he dropped the climbers at Paris-Nice and this makes him a bit of an outsider here. We doubt that he has the explosiveness to make it into the best group after the Cauberg but we won’t rule it out completely. He is not the fastest sprinter but if he is there at the end of this race, he will be one of the big favourites.


As said, there is always a big chance that strong riders can attack from a small group after the Cauberg. That’s how Vanendert rode to second two years ago and many riders will be ready to take that opportunity. We will point to Rui Costa and Samuel Sanchez as two riders who are perfect for such a move. Both were among the best in Pais Vasco where Sanchez was stronger than he has been for several year and Costa was maybe at his best level ever, defending himself excellently on climbs that are usually too steep for him. Both riders will be there after the Cauberg and both are masters in timing an unexpected move in the finale.


Diego Ulissi has been expected to do great things in the classics but the results have never come. The Italian simply suffers over the longer distances and so Amstel Gold Race is not a perfect race for him. On the other hand, he has proved that he is one of the very best in the world in a slightly uphill sprint like this one. His form in Pais Vasco didn’t look good so we are not convinced that he will be there in the finale but if he is, he will have a chance.


Finally, we will point to Tony Gallopin. He finished third at Brabantse Pijl but honestly we were a bit disappointed to see him getting dropped in the finale. To win Amstel Gold Race, he needs to be a lot stronger and it is hard to see him turn things around in just three days. On the other hand, he improved his climbing a lot in 2015 and he has the skills to do really well here. Due to his fast sprint, he is one of the riders who can really win this race even though several riders are faster than him.


***** Simon Gerrans

**** Michael Matthews, Michal Kwiatkowski

*** Julian Alaphilippe, Sergio Henao, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sonny Colbrelli, Petr Vakoc

** Giovanni Visconti, Enrico Gasparotto, Philippe Gilbert, Fabio Felline, Ben Swift, Rui Costa, Samuel Sanchez, Diego Ulissi, Tony Gallopin

* Tim Wellens, Roman Kreuziger, Arthur Vichot, Simon Clarke, Ion Izagirre, Joaquim Rodriguez, Jan Bakelants, Alexis Vuillermoz, Maurits Lammertink, Tom Dumoulin, Sep Vanmarcke, Grega Bole, Bryan Coquard, Wout Poels, Peter Kennaugh, Bob Jungels, Tiesj Benoot



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