• Rúben Silva

Amstel Gold Race Preview

It's the time of the year for the World Tour peloton to race through the roads of Limburg. Heading for it's 54th edition this Sunday, it's known as a very hilly race that kicks off a week of racing in the Ardennes that will top out in Belgium with the fourth monument of the season, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

It used to be a race of pure power with it's old finish atop the Cauberg, and remained a very focused race to the finishing section when it finished right after the Cauberg, but since it's changed in 2017 it's been a race of tactics and opportunity as much as the rider's power, and this year it will repeat itself.

The Route

The sheer lenght of the race, with it's 266 kilometers will come as a dificulty for many riders, following the past years it'll mean a 6:30 hours in the saddle. The difference it has over some other races with the same distance is the amount of climbing. As a classic hilly route, it features no mountain, and no long climb, but the succession of climbs and the gradients in some of them will make for a very hard race as it is every year.

This year features a very similar route to last year's race, and the truth is it's hard to mention the decisive places, as we've seen in the last few years the vital moves may happen anywhere, and last year it was a game of marking between the big favourites in the front group over the Bemelerberg, which allowed the riders with less reputation to go on and dispute the win and fill out all the podium places.

It's a hard race from the start, the first climb comes with only 10 kilometers of racing, and after, in total come 35 categorized climbs. The race will loop around the hills next to Maastricht, and it will be a relentless affair with no real resting periods during the race.

The Cauberg is the race's most iconic climb though. It will be climbed 3 times in total but the first will likely have no influence. The others may, the Cauberg/Geulhemmerberg combination will come with 89/85 and 18/13 kilometers to the end. The final passing may prove vital as it is well within the race's crucial section and in the range of a successful solo move.

They are 800 meters at 7% and 800 meters at 6% respectively, both with maximum gradients above the 10% mark. On the last loop they are preceded by the Keutenberg which is 1.1Km at 6.5% total but with the opening 300 meters at 13%, making it a very tough finish for a tough race. But they will lead to the final climb which has gained a great reputation since being added as the final climb in the race.

The Bemelerberg can be considered a short bit of climb with long draining slight-uphill drags both before and after, with it's hardest part has 6% throughout 600 meters, not the hardest of climbs but with this much distance and likely such a hard race to the moment, it is hard enough to make serious gaps, as was the case in 2017 where Michal Kwiatkowski and Phillipe Gilbert took the climb to make the final selection to decide the race.

It's summit comes with 5.5Km to go, so from there on there's a rolling road that leads to the classic finish in Berg en Terblijt.

The Weather

The riders will be happy to know it's going to be a sunny day with warm spring temperatures above 20ºC. As for the wind, it will be around 10Km/h so it won't come as a decisive factor, plus with the route twisting around Limburg the whole day with constant changes of direction and no real flat sections, it'll only have minimal effect in some parts.

The Puncheurs

Prior to his Basque Country crash he was rated as the biggest favourite for all of the Ardennes classics, but after his performance in Brabantse Pijl confidence must be restored, alongside a team that also features the recent Paris-Roubaix winner Phillipe Gilbert, but arguably not as strong as their squad in the past few years.

And of course, the actual Brabantse Pijl winner, Mathieu van der Poel. He is having is first season racing at a WorldTour level and is dealing with it perfectly, shining in every race he's ridden so far. This wednesday wasn't an exception as he powered away in an amazing win after an agressive ride, and the truth is he never really looked in serious trouble against the likes of Tim Wellens and Alaphillipe attacking, which means a lot. Van der Poel doesn't have such a strong team, one that will certainly lack when the race gets tactical, so there's a good chance that he'll take the race head on early to prevent other teams to take advantage of their strenght in numbers.

Tim Wellens is coming in leading Lotto Soudal, he's a rider who likes this race and suits him very well, he'll be one of the marked riders for his displeasure, but he has the pure power that lacks someone like Alaphillipe, so for him it'll be a case of finding the right opportunity. He won't be alone though, with an experienced squad backing him up, including Jelle Vanendert who was a headliner in last year's races.

There's Team Sky, led by Michal Kwiatkowski who's won this race in the past, he's coming in after a great season start, but his crash in Basque Country also puts in doubt his performance here. Wout Poels will come as his main backup, but the team combines a mix of experience and youth, with an immense quality in this type of explosive racing.

Dimension Data will bring a squad with 4 wins in total between 3 riders. Valgren arguably was set out as the leader some time ago, but he has been lacking top form this spring, he's coming as the defending champion but it isn't expected to see him in the fight to defend his title. Enrico Gasparotto always seems to come around for this race, 2 times a past winner he really knows how to race it, and his Brabantse performance indicates he's where he needs to be, as did Roman Kreuziger. Despite their palmares they aren't coming as heavily marked riders, it showed last year when they were the trio to get away from the main group, which can also be used this year.

The cobbled classics specialists will also have a big mention, Greg van Avermaet leads CCC with Pattrick Bevin as a backup, the explosive racing suits him very well but as it's been the case all spring long here should be another race where the other favourites won't let him gain a single meter. Wout van Aert comes from a mighty Paris-Roubaix performance, he seems to still be in great form but racing in the Ardennes at this level comes as a novelty, he is a very powerful rider that will love the less steep climbs, but may come across dificulties in the steeper ones as he is much heavier than the regular contenders. The other, the Tour de Flandres winner Alberto Bettiol, with Michael Woods in the team aswell, they will be a very dangerous duo who can make great damage in the climbs. Having each other will be a card many won't have, but it will take some luck and opportunity to take a big win here.

The Climbers

Of course, the puncheurs aren't the only ones who can thrive on this race. Michael Woods and Wout Poels have been mentioned, of course a pure climber will struggle in such conditions but there are lots of punchy climbers who suit these climbs well, and some are here.

Alejandro Valverde of course, the world champion has finished 5 times on the Top5 but has never won the race, he has been close but always lacked something, maybe his luck, anyhow he is a heavily marked rider too, it won't be easy for him to pull off such feat but he comes as a serious contender again.

Astana bring a classic squad, one that almost every rider can have an important role in the race. Their leader are both climbers, Ion Izagirre and Jakob Fuglsang, but both have performed very well here and both come in evident great shape after their collaboration in the Basque Country. Alexey Lutsenko is also a serious contender, he's been riding very well this season and has some impressive wins to his name already, he's been U-23 world champion in the very same place so it comes as a possible sign of what may come. With Gorka Izagirre, Luis Leon Sanchez and Omar Fraile also present, it's sure that the team will be one of the most represented in crucial moments of the race.

AG2R have Romain Bardet, also slowly coming back from injury in Catalunya, he and Oliver Naesen have been one of the best duos in the peloton in recent years and here they'll play out a race they have equal leadership and chances of winning, Bardet is one of the climbers who loves this type of racing, and Naesen is a very powerful rider who can climb as well and have a great sprint, plus a great sustained power, ideal for the final attacks that have so many times decided the race. The French also have Rudy Molard as a good possibility in FDJ's team, he's been evoluting well in his career and seems to have the right skillset to thrive in such a race at the moment.

UAE Emirates come with the other squad where climbers prosper. There are 4 riders who are capable of a good result, there will surely be no set leader and the road will be the one to decide. Rui Costa comes from slight injury but looked recovered in Brabantse Pijl, Amstel isn't the race that suits him the best out of the Ardennes but he is a solid contender. The other 3 came from Basque Country, Tadej Pogacar, Sergio Henao and Diego Ulissi. Pogacar the less experienced obviously, but he has good power in short climbs as we've recently seen, if he can endure the long race and is well guided he can definetely put on a big result. Henao and Ulissi have got a lot of experience, they're past their prime years but they are no slouches, and have got a very explosive kick which is exactly what a rider needs in this race a lot.

The Sprinters

There are some pretty good riders to say the least in this field of contenders. In a way it seems they are always marked or forced to work and don't succeed, but this year again they are back to try and take one for the fast riders.

Peter Sagan is the obvious first choice, he hasn't been able to win the race yet and he can blame that on the heavy marking that's put on him. But this year he comes with a remodeled squad, one that can attack for him. Pattrick Konrad and Max Schachmann come from an amazing performance in Basque Country, amazing to say the least for the latter. This year Sagan may be able to ride on the wheels of the rivals instead of being pushed into working, which may be something to play in his favour enough for him to get this so elusive win.

Michael Matthews, obviously, he comes from a disapointing Brabantse Pijl. Not for the result which was 4th, but because he was able to resist the attacks of some of the strongest puncheurs in the race but was then blocked in the final sprint, denying him of a seemingly likely win. Matthews has Soren Kragh Andersen with him, but he seems to be good on his own, and if he shows himself like he did some days ago, it can reel him a win as he comes with great form and great results lately and he can deal with the punchy climbs as well as most other riders.

Bahrain-Merida bring a host of possibilities, Sonny Colbrelli is the team leader, but with Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohoric bring lot of protection and antecipation attacks which can be crucial for him. Another sprinter with a great capacity to go through these short and sharp efforts, it's another rider to watch out for Sunday.

Mitchelton bring an interesting squad, both haven't looked in their best, but Daryl Impey and Matteo Trentin are a very interesting duo, both can climb very well these hills and both have a good sprint, plus they are part of the unmarked rider lot.

Other Possibilities

Of course there are other riders who can be in contention but will hardly obtain a top result, Bauke Mollema of Trek, Katusha have Battaglin/Haas/Guerreiro combination, Israel have Hermans/Neilandts, Pieter Weening of Roompot has been in great form too, Vital Concept have a strong team, with Coquard and Artur Vichot leading, Quentin Pacher and Pattrick Muller as backups, and finally there's also Guillaume Martin and Odd Christian Eiking of Wanty.

The Teams

Deceuninck/Corendon - The teams with the two most explosive riders in the startline it would seem, Alaphillipe and van der Poel come across as the main favourites for the race but their teams divert on terms of support, but the Dutch has shown he can cope with the added pressure.

Bora/Mitchelton/Sunweb/Bahrain - These teams will certainly want a calmer race, they will likely not behave so conservatively as all of them have backups besides their sprinters, so it's all about trying to keep them in the wheels of their rivals as much as possible.

Astana/Movistar/AG2R/Emirates - The climbers teams essentially, they don't have great advantage besides Astana who have a big strenght in numbers.

Lotto Soudal/EF/Sky - The other teams with pure puncheurs on the startline, they have been a bit underjudged for the race but they will be a big part of it.

CCC/Jumbo-Visma - The cobbled specialists in a way, the heavier riders will lead these teams, who can perform very strongly on the classics but aren't on their favourite terrain.

Trek/Katusha/Vital Concept/FDJ - These teams have secondary options for contention, they have good riders but will need more than that to be able to dispute the race, brains and power will be needed.

Roompot/Wanty/Israel - Some outsiders here, good riders but they will struggle with such competition, still it will be interesting to see what they'll be able to do here.

Bardiani/Sport Vlaanderen - These two won't have an important role in the race, being in the breakaway well represented is likely the biggest goal as they don't have a proper leader who can be in contention for a top result.

Prediction Time

Alaphillipe, Sagan, van der Poel

Gilbert, Kwiatkowski, Matthews, Wellens, Fuglsang, Valverde

van Avermaet, van Aert, Bettiol, Molard, Impey, Colbrelli, Teuns, Schachmann

It's true he doesn't have a team to cover most attacks and reel back attacks if necessary, but in all races we've seen him against top competition he looked like he didn't even need them. What I mean is he isn't afraid of going from far, of making the race, of exploding it, and he isn't afraid of working. The climbs are hard enough and he is capable of flying through both the steep and the shallow climbs, and also sprint, so maybe he's the best option for tomorrow.

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