Roman Kreuziger (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) became a very impressive and highly surprising winner of the first of the Ardennes classics, the Amstel Gold Race. Having joined an earlier break after an attack on the penultimate time up the Cauberg climb, he left his companions inside the final 10 kilometres and held off a furious chase by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) to take the biggest victory of his career.
The expectations for the Saxo-Tinkoff team in this year's Amstel Gold Race were rather low but Roman Krezuiger proved that their competitors had had any reason to keep an eye on the Danish team in the Dutch classics. When he attacked on the penultimate time up the race's landmark climb of the Cauberg, the favourites were busy looking at each other and had no intentions to close down the move.
Joined by Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) and Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil), the Czech set off in pursuit of the front group which consisted of Lars Petter Nordhaug (Blanco), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel). With 10km to go, they closed the gap to create a strong 7-man chase group.
Kreuziger was clearly the strongest of the escapees and when he attacked on a flat part with less than 7km remaining, it was evident that his former companions would never regain contact. The main challenge for a surprise Czech victory was the diminished peloton which chased hard less than 30 seconds behind.
However, a very hard race had brought down the number of domestiques, and pre-race favourite Peter Sagan had only Alessandro De Marchi left. The Cannondale team got some assistance from Pieter Serry form the Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad which hoped to set up Michal Kwiatkowski for the win.
Kreuziger started the Cauberg climb with 3km remaining almost 30 seconds ahead of the peloton. At the bottom, Marcus Burghardt and Greg Van Avermaet set a hard tempo to launch world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) off the front. He caught and passed the chasing group and soloed off in pursuit of the lone Kreuziger.
Simon Gerrans was just meters behind Gilbert with Alejandro Valverde right in his wheel as they crested the top but was unable to close the gap. However, the Spaniard had still plenty of power left and he moved to the front to bridge up to the world champion with last year's Milan-Sanremo winner in his wheel.
The three pre-race favourites set off in pursuit on the last 1800m of flat road but it was clear that they would not be able to catch the lone Czech. Kreuziger soloed across the finish line to take his first big classics victory which joins his overall victories in the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie in al already impressive palmares.
Behind Gilbert was left to do all the work and the three chasers were caught by a small group just on the line. Valverde once again proved his fast finish at the end of a hard race by taking 2nd while Gerrans was 3rd and Gilbert 5th. Kwiatkowski was the fastest in the pursuit group and managed to take 4th just ahead of the world champion.
Major favourite Peter Sagan had an off-day and was unable to keep up with Gilbert even though he was right in his wheel at the bottom of the Cauberg. With today's lost opportunity, he still only has one big classics victory taken in March in the Gent-Wevelgem. Furthermore, he missed the opportunity to take over the lead in the world rankings which are still topped by Fabian Cancellara.
The riders will get an opportunity for revenge when the second of the Ardennes classics, the Fleche Wallonne, takes place on Wednesday.
Vansummeren on the attack
The 251,8km Amstel Gold Race is the first of the Ardennes classics and the only change for the cycling-mad Dutch population to watch the world elite fight it out on their own roads. On the narrow, winding roads in the Limburg province, the riders had to tackle no less than 34 climbs spread throughout the entire course and the last passage of the famous Cauberg was located 1800m from the line in a new final part of the race.
The start of the race was unusually calm and Johan Vansummeren's attack after just 5km of racing created the day's early breakaway. He was joined by Tim De Troyer (Accent.jobs), Alexandr Pliuschin (IAM), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel) and Arthur Vanoververghe (Topsport) and later Nicolas Vogondy (Accent.jobs) and Klaas Sys (Crelan) also managed to gain contact.
The rider break was given plenty of leeway by a lazy peloton and the gap stretched out to no less than 13 minutes before Cannondale and Blanco started to up the pace. The former had pre-race favourite Sagan in their ranks while the latter is the big home team and hoped to see Bauke Mollema in the mix.
The gap came down and was less than 10 minutes when a major crash at the front end of the peloton happened with around 90km remaining. World champion Philippe Gilbert, Rui Costa (Movistar) and Laurens Ten Dam (Blanco) were some of the riders involved but luckily all got back on their bike.
The crash split up the peloton and a small group of around 20 riders had a small gap on the rest of the bunch. With plenty of Blanco riders in the move, Lars Boom and later Bram Tankink hit the front to try to take advantage of the situation.
Behind, Gilbert managed to get back to the peloton, and as soon as the world champion was safely in the bunch, Michael Schär and Daniel Oss set a hard pace at the front. They chased for a number of kilometres and managed to catch the Blanco-led move.
The fast pace has reduced the gap to around 6 minutes and the peloton calmed down for a short moment. However, Katusha and Movistar wanted a hard race to tire out Sagan and soon after Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) and Alberto Losada (Katusha) set a hard tempo which forced plenty of riders to drop off from the peloton which gradually got smaller and smaller.
Rodriguez takes a tumble
With 50km remaining, Orica-GreenEdge out 4 riders on the front in an attempt to set up Gerrans for the win. Cannondale took over moments later just as another major crash happened. One of the pre-race favourites Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) hit the deck hard and even though he managed to get back on his bike, his thigh hurt and his race was over.
As the riders hit the steep Eyserbosweg with 38km remaining, Weening attacked and soloed off the front. Meanwhile, the front group split up and only Vansummeren, Astarloza and Pliuschin managed to stay ahead of the peloton. Moments later, Astarloza soloed off the front while his companions were stuck in between the lone Euskaltel rider and the chasing Weening.
A chase group is formed
In the peloton, Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) set a furious chase on the climb and the bunch was further reduced in what was turning into a really hard race. On the steep Keutenberg climb, Weening caught and dropped Vansummeren and Pliuschin while Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Blanco), David Tanner (Blanco) and Andriy Grivko (Astana) attacked from the peloton.
They picked up Pliuschin along the way and Weening made the wise decision to fall back to the chasers to save some energy. Meanwhile, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) made a surprisingly early move but his attempt only spurred on the Cannondale team which caught the lone Italian at the bottom of the Cauberg with 20km remaining.
Kreuziger on the attack
On the climb Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil) set off in pursuit and he was joined by Kreuziger and Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha). Setting a blistering pace, the trio quickly closed the gap to the chasers of the lone Astarloza.
Behind, attacks went thick and fast and for a moment a very dangerous move containing Gerrans, Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel) was off the front. However, Cannondale managed to close it down using their last domestique De Marchi who did an impressive job in the final part of the race.
With Velits back in the peloton, Omega Pharma-Quick Step decided to join the pace-setting while up ahead the chase group - which had lost Tanner and Pliuschin - caught Astarloza at the top of the Geulhemmerweg climb. The now 7-rider strong front group started the Bemelerberg climb 27 seconds ahead of the peloton.
The front group splits up
On the climb, Grivko and Nordhaug both attacked while Astarloza was unable to keep up the pace. Grivko was also dropped for a moment but the strong Ukranian managed to close the gap on the flat stretch after the top.
This was the signal for Kreuziger to attack his companions and no one was able to follow the strong Czech. He set off in an attempt to take a solo victory while there was no cooperation among his former companions.
A late move by Hesjedal made the Canadian join the chase group at the bottom of the Cauberg climb but at that moment the peloton was breathing down their neck. With Burghardt and Van Avermaet setting a blistering pace, the group was caught on the climb as soon as Gilbert soloed off the front.
Later joined by Valverde and Gerrans, the world champion chased hard in an attempt to take his third victory in the race but there was nothing to do against the lone Saxo-Tinkoff rider. Kreuziger held off his chasers and took a much deserved solo victory and his first big classics win.
1. Roman Kreuziger
2. Alejandro Valverde +0.22
3. Simon Gerrans
4. Michal Kwiatkowski
5. Philippe Gilbert
6. Sergio Henao
7. Bjorn Leukemans
8. Pieter Weening
9. Enrico Gasparotto
10. Bauke Mollema
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