Sunday marks the change in the Spring Classic programme. The cobbles of the low lands are finished with and we now enter into the world of the Ardennes Classics. The rouleur gives way for the puncher.
Taking place in the hill area around Maastricht, southern Holland, the Amstel Gold is one of the newer classics on the circuit, first run in 1966. With its nervous, twisting roads and short, steep climbs which relentlessly pound the peloton, it is a tough race where the selection is more a case of those who can, splitting from those who can not.
The 2013 version offers a new circuit and run into the finish, which could be even more selective. 251 kilometres is on the menu for the top riders who take the start, packed with a leg-breaking 33 classified climbs, up from the 31 of last year. It is the back end of the race where the major changes to the circuit have been made. Rather than finishing on the Cauberg as previous years, this year the race will finish 1.8 kilometres down the road, at the same place where Philippe Gilbert won the World Championships in 2012.
Traditionally the race for the finish has kicked off seriously on the Eyserbosweg; at 1.1km, 8% average and maxing out at 18% it is tough. But the long open road at the top of the climb is where the first selection has been made in past years. The quick run into the Keutenberg, which is narrow and 22% at the bottom has been the launch pad for the run to the finish, and another key part of the finale of this race.
The new toute is going to be somewhat of an unknown. Coming into a finishing circuit at the point which would have been the finish in previous years, means that these iconic climbs may not have the impact that they have had in the past. The addition of two more climbs, which are yet to be seen as to how tough they are, will add to the wearing down process of the race and make the final selection even smaller. 4 climbs in the final 20 kilometres of racing, or 30 minutes at 40kph is tough however you look at it!
Amstel Gold is the start of the Grand Tour rider’s season. With its 4,000 metres of climbing it is a race for those looking to be competitive for events such as the Giro d’Italia, to come out and test their condition. That means that the list of favourites is wider than normally seen in the spring. Riders such as Rodriquez, Cunego, Valverde, Uran and Heno will be up there.
On their recent form it will be hard to look past two riders, Gilbert, who has already won at this finish and Sagan. Bottom pinching of podium girls aside, Sagan has had a super spring campaign. He skipped Roubaix to save his legs for Amstel Gold. Third here last year, he will be the man to beat. But the question remains whether the additional climbs in the finishing circuit and the high calibre of top riders in the race will be too much for this heavy weight rider.
As with all the classics there are the outsiders, those who are known to animate the races and go for the longer shots. Naturally the French will be top of that list. 2012 saw young French rider Romain Bardet at the front of affairs in the final kilometres, even after being in the breakaway all day. With another season of top-flight competition he will be out to prove that last year’s ride was not a fluke. Another French rider of note, who will animate the race towards the end, is French favourite Thomas Voeckler. Motivated to win Liege Bastogne Liege just one week away, he will be out to test his legs and make the others in the lead group hurt.
Last year’s victor Gasparotto, is another key rider to watch. His Astana team have been at the front of races all season and might be the key to shutting down speedy Sagan. It is yet to be seen how much his accident in training Thursday, hitting a truck whilst motor pacing, will affect him.
For those wanting to support the Anglophones in the peloton, riders to watch out for will be Aussie Simon Gerrans, Irishman Dan Martin, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and Irish rider Nicolas Roche. All should factor in the race.
As for the British riders there are 5 in the race; Tiernan-Locke and Dowsett are the strongest. Kennaugh, Rowsell and Downing are the other three. None are really in the favourites for the victory, but might be spotted working for their team leaders.
So Sunday afternoon, after your Sunday outing on the bike, sit back and get ready for some action. With its steep climbs, sinuous roads, large selection of favourites, new parcours and monumental status, Amstel Gold is going to be entertaining. Plus it is a good excuse to crack open a nice Dutch beer and watch some top-flight racing!
Author: Phil Gale