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Anyone who watched the final 10km of the Brabantse Pijl will confirm that the race has only one major favourite. Peter Sagan's calm handling of a very difficult all-against-Sagan situation did not only reflect his superior physical powe...

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ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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AMSTEL GOLD RACE

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BAUKE MOLLEMA

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BJÖRN LEUKEMANS

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ENRICO GASPAROTTO

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JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ OLIVER

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PETER SAGAN

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PHILIPPE GILBERT

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SIMON GERRANS

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14.04.2013 @ 12:45 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

On Sunday the cycling-mad Dutch population 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. 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, no less than three ProTeams in the current peloton and a very well-developed cycling infrastructure only has very limited opportunities to showcase their finest talents 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 and on Sunday that day has finally arrived.

 

However, 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. 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. Nonetheless, its nature is different from the ones found in Belgium later this week and the Dutch classic is somewhat of an amalgamation between the Tour of Flanders and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege. With no less than 33 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, the race is, however,  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.

 

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 join for the Fleche Wallonne in which the climbs are longer and the final much harder while few cobbles specialists are back on the start line on Wednesday. Finally, the 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 and almost all of the world's best climbers and GC specialists will be gathered on the start line in Liege.

 

Last year most expected a fierce Sagan-Gilbert-Valverde-Rodriguez battle on the slopes in the Limburg province but when the peloton hit the final climb of the Cauberg, the Spanish duo was nowhere to be seen while Gilbert was unable to follow the best. The young Slovakian paid a costly price for his inexperience and had to settle for 3rd behind Enrico Gasparotto who took a much unexpected first classics victory. A podium spot in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one week later proved that his result was no fluke, and while Sagan, Gilbert, Valverde and Rodriguez are all back to get their revenge, the wily Italian will hope to once again disappoint the major favourites on Sunday afternoon.

 

The course

In 2003 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%.

 

However, the difficulty of the finish has made for a much more controlled race during recent editions in which he favourites have mostly chosen to save their power for the final uphill sprint. In an attempt to open up the race, the race organization has once again changed the script of the finish. As it was the case in last year's world championships road race - which was won by Philippe Gilbert - the finish line will this year be located 1800 meters further on from the top of the climb, thus giving riders the possibility to get back in contention after being dropped on the ascent. Organizers hope that this will spur on some of the favourites to attack from afar as they do not all fancy their chances in a final sprint.

 

As always, the 251,8km race starts in the main city of the province, Maastricht. From there, they head into the hills located west from the city, and the race now winds 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 33 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 9,4km from the official start. Many climbs will be climbed more than once, and the race's landmark climb, the Cauberg, will be tackled no less than four times.

 

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.

 

The constant repetition of climbs and stress of keeping a good position make it a gradual elimination race. While an early breakaway is certain to go off, the peloton will progressively dwindle under the hard pace set by the strong teams of the peloton. It is usually an aggressive race and when we enter the final 70km of the course, attacks will go thick and fast in an attempt to harden the race.

 

The main selection and crucial accelerations from the race favourites have traditionally taken place on the key climbs of the Eyserbosweg and the Keutenberg inside the final 20km of the race. However, the new finish line is not the only change to the course. Having tackled the traditional finish with the Eyserbosweg, the Fromberg, the Keutenberg and the Cauberg, the riders hit the finish line and will now start a new 18,5km finishing loop. The circuit includes the Geulhemmerweg climb with 16,5km remaining and the Bemelerberg with only 7,8km to go before the riders hit the Cauberg for the fourth and final time. From the top, it is 1800 meters of almost flat road before the riders will sprint it out for the final victory at the finish in Berg en Terblijt.

 

The climbs of the Geulhemmerweg (1000m, 6,2%) and Bemelerberg (900m, 5,0%) are not nearly as difficult as the Eyserbosweg (1100m, 8,1%) and the Keutenberg (700m, 9,4%) and with the flat finish there is no doubt that the final part of the race is substantially easier than it has been during the last couple of years. This creates a risk that the race will be less selective than usual but organizers hope that it will only spur on attacks from afar when riders without a fast finish have to turn the race into a hard one.

 

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 no different on Sunday. The wind has the potential to cause havoc on the peloton in certain places and a rainy day will only make for more nervousness on the narrow, twisting descents.

 

Spring has finally arrived in Northern Europe and for the first time this year the riders may enter a major classic without any reason to fear the cold. While it will probably be a cloudy morning, the sun is forecatsed to make its presence felt in the latter part of the race and temperatures are expected to exceed 20 degrees Celcius. With no rain on the menu, it should be a perfect day for a bike race.

 

This year one climatic factor will, however, be more important than any other. With the new location of the finish line, the wind direction on the final 1800m run-in from the top of the Cauberg will be crucial. During last year's world championships, a headwind resulted in rather big fields sprinting it out for the rainbow jersey in the junior women's, junior men's and U23 men's road races. On the contrary, Philippe Gilbert enjoyed a tailwind when he managed to hold off his competitors in the elite men's race on the final day of racing.

 

On Sunday the riders will face a rather strong wind from a southerly direction. This means that there will be a crosswind on the final 1800m east-west run, thus making it more difficult to predict the survival chances of any move on the Cauberg. Furthermore, the strong wind may cause problems throughout the day, and the risk of crosswinds will undoubtedly increase the nervousness of the peloton.

 

The favourites

Anyone who watched the final 10km of the Brabantse Pijl will confirm that the race has only one major favourite. Peter Sagan's (Cannondale) calm handling of a very difficult all-against-Sagan situation did not only reflect his superior physical power but also a mental strength which surpasses what you see from much more experienced riders. Even world champion Philippe Gilbert had to use all of his willpower to clinch to Sagan's wheel when the Slovakian accelerated after single-handedly having closed down the move of Gilbert's teammate Greg Van Avermaet.

 

Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack) had the strength to drop Sagan on the Paterberg in the Tour of Flanders but the young talent is much more at ease on paved climbs than on the cobbles and the short length of the climbs in the Limburg province makes it hard to imagine any scenario in which his competitors are able to get rid of him. Furthermore, he is clearly benefited by the new location of the finish line and no one will have much chance to hold off the Slovakian in a final sprint to the line.

 

It will probably be a mistake to try to beat Sagan on pure strength and the key to defeat the Slovakian could be another common all-against-Sagan tactics adopted by all of his rival teams. The Gent-Wevelgem winner has one main weakness which was evidently exposed to the public in the Brabantse Pijl: a weak team. Key domestiques Moreno Moser and Damiano Caruso were nowhere to be seen in the final part of the race, and there is little doubt that strong teams like Katusha, Movistar and BMC will use their considerable horsepower to create a hard race in an attempt to isolate Sagan.

 

The Slovakian handled the situation brilliantly in the final part of the Brabantse Pijl. However, he benefited from the limited number of competitors in the final 11-man group in which he mostly had to keep control of Gilbert, Van Avermaet, Björn Leukemans, Sylvain Chavanel and Simon Geschke. A similar scenario of an isolated Sagan could be more complicated in Sunday's classics with a much stronger field of competitors all able to pose a significant threat in the final part of the race. He may be unable to control all of his rivals and we could see a surprise move go clear at some point inside the final kilometres of the race.

 

The final 1800 meters from the top of the Cauberg to the finish line may prove the hardest challenge for Sagan. If the likes of Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez are unable to drop their main competitor on the climb, a likely scenario is a favourite group losing all of its pace as soon as they crest the summit. With riders returning from behind, attacks can go thick and fast, and with all expecting Sagan to close it down, it may prove to be too much even for his immense talent. This could open the door for a surprise victory.

 

Instead of risking being isolated too early as it happened to Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix, Sagan may choose to put the likes of Moser and Caruso into the dangerous breaks inside the final 50km of the race, and if a strong break with Cannondale, Movistar, BMC and Katusha goes clear, a surprise victory may be on the cards.

 

As suggested above, the most likely winner apart from Sagan could be an outsider exploiting the Slovakian's massive favourite status while his strongest rivals will all be kept under control by the Cannondale captain. Nonetheless, the line-up contains a number of riders who could outwit the race's dominating figure in the right circumstances.

 

The most obvious rival is of course world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and the race has already been named another Sagan-Gilbert battle. The 2010 and 2011 winner may be the only one in possession of a punch capable of dropping Sagan on the Cauberg and if the Belgian is back at his 2011 or 2012 world championships level, he could be the man to beat the favourite.

 

Once again, he had a hard time in the early part of the season but his decision to skip the Tour of Flanders in favour of hard training on the Basque climbs proved to be a wise one. At any rate, he seemed to be much stronger than he was at this time last year when he lined up at the Brabantse Pijl, and while Sagan may still struggle a bit in the longer races, Gilbert only seems to benefit from the extra 50km in Sunday's event. Furthermore, he was not that far off in the sprint and it is not impossible to imagine him beating a tired Sagan in a final dash if the Slovakian has been forced to do all the work in the latter part of the race.

 

The other main rival is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The Spaniard has been on a roll all year and apart from a less successful participation in the Italian one-day races Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima, he has been right in the mix whenever he has entered a race. He won the hardest race of the Challenge Mallorca, brought home a repeat win in the Vuelta a Andalucia and he would have been a very likely winner of the Volta a Catalunya if he had not crashed out of the race while clad in the leader's jersey. In the GP Miguel Indurain, he won the bunch sprint for 4th after the combined forces of the Movistar and the Euskaltel teams had been unable to bring back an unstoppable Simon Spilak (Katusha).

 

His last race was the sprinter's race Vuelta a la Rioja two weeks ago, and his long absence from competition may raise some questions regarding his form. He had planned to race in last Sunday's Klasika Primavera but a cold made him change his plans. He admits that he would have liked to have had more racing kilometres in his legs but if he is at his best, he will be one of the select few with the explosiveness to drop Sagan on the Cauberg. Furthermore, his sprint is probably even better than Gilbert's and he could be another man to exploit tired Slovakian legs in a final dash to the line.

 

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) was 3rd in the race in 2011 but mistimed his build-up to the Ardennes classics last year, and he was never really a threat in his major targets. This year he seems to be in the exact opposite situation with a near-perfect preparation behind him. Having had a hard time in the Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo, he made a last-minute decision to include the Volta a Catalunya in his schedule and he even managed to clinch a stage win along the way. Last week he once again showed his amazing form by taking another stage win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco before turning his focus to his final preparation for next week's racing.

 

As he also proved in the Canadian WorldTour races last year, he is very hard to drop on shorter climbs, and this year he seems to be sprinting better than ever before. If he remains in contention at the top of the Cauberg, he will be a danger man and a tired Sagan will probably not be totally comfortable to enter a head-to-head battle with the fast Australian at the end of a hard race.

 

Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) is a formidable Ardennes contender and he was 2nd in the Dutch race behind Gilbert in 2011. If anyone has a reason to bemoan the changed location of the finish line, it will, however,  be the tiny Spaniard. While he would be a major favourite in a sprint up the Cauberg, he has no chance to beat the likes of Sagan, Valverde and Gerrans in a sprint on flat roads, and even if he should manage to drop his rivals on the Cauberg, it will be a hard task to hold them off on the final 1800 meters to the line. Hence, his greatest chance may be to exploit a moment of hesitation among his faster competitors to go off the front in the final part of the race but it is hard to imagine Rodriguez winning Sunday's race. No one doubts that he is in great condition - even though we missed the opportunity to see him in action in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco this year - but he may have to wait until Wednesday to showcase his amazing talents.

 

It would be a huge mistake to discount defending champion Enrico Gasparotto (Astana). Last year his amazing run of form in the Ardennes came from nowhere, and indications from the Vuelta al Pais Vasco would never suggest that he would be one of the main protagonists in the hilly one-day races. As opposed to this, he has given plenty of signs of strong condition throughout the 2013 season. Had it not been for an unfortunate penultimate stage, he would have taken an overall top 20 position in the Paris-Nice, and he was a protagonist in the Milan-Sanremo where he ended up 14th. Last week he did an amazing work for team captain Jakob Fuglsang in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco while quietly building on his form, and the Italian seems to be ready to once again play a major role in his season targets in the Ardennes. He is another extremely fast finisher, and he may use his underestimated status to slip off the front inside the final 1800 meters of the race.

 

Bauke Mollema (Blanco) carries an enormous responsibility in Sunday's race. The Blanco/Rabobank team has traditionally taken on a heavy workload in their big home race and expectations for a top performance from the Dutch public are immense. This year the team is all for Mollema and it will be up to the man who last year finished 10th in the race to satisfy the demand for a top result.

 

While the young Dutchman has struggled in the high mountains in recent years and may never fulfill the expectations in the grand tours, last year's performances proved that he has all what it takes to be a main protagonist in the hilly classics. His 10th place in his home race were followed by a 7th in the Fleche Wallonne and a 6th in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and he was 7th in Il Lombardia in the final part of the season. This year he has been immensely strong all the way from his season debut in the Tour Mediteraneen and only a bad day - unsurprisingly in the high mountains - in the Tirreno-Adriatico taints an otherwise perfect string of results. Unfortunately, illness forced him to miss the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and his lack of competition in recent weeks may be the only reason not to expect the Dutchman at the forefront in Sunday's race. He is explosive, has a fast sprint and he will not be far off at the top of the final Cauberg climb. Expect to see the Dutchman go on the attack while the main favourites look at each other in the final part of the race.

 

Finally, Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) is one of the select few to be a main protagonist in both the cobbled and the Ardennes classics. While the hilly races usually arrive at the end of a long period with the Belgian at his peak, this year is different. He was unable to find the right condition in the early cobbled races and we had to wait until Paris-Roubaix to see the Vacansoleil captain back at his best. Bad luck took him out of contention on the French cobbles but he bounced back with a dedicated attempt in the Brabantse Pijl and he still had the power to finish 3rd after being on the attack during the final 40km of the race. He has no chance in a sprint against the likes of Sagan, Gilbert, Valverde or Gerrans but as he is mostly overlooked by the main favourites, it may be unclear who has to chase down a dangerous move from the Belgian in the final part of the race.

 

***** Peter Sagan

**** Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde

*** Simon Gerrans, Joaquin Rodriguez, Enrico Gasparotto, Bauke Mollema, Björn Leukemans

** Damiano Cunego, Maxim Iglinskiy, Greg Van Avermaet, Diego Ulissi, Jelle Vanendert, Simon Geschke, Tony Gallopin, Thomas Voeckler, Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao

* Carlos Betancur, Rinaldo Nocentini, Damiano Caruso, Moreno Moser, Alexandr Kolobnev, Simon Spilak, Nairo Quintana, Michal Kwiatkowski, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gianni Meersman

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