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Photo: Sirotti


20.04.2014 @ 10:41 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. 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, two ProTeams in the current peloton, a host of some of the most exciting talents and a very well-developed cycling infrastructure only has very limited opportunities to showcase their 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.


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. 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. 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 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 crash fest 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 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. 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 more natural. Even though it is not a monument, it is one of the very few races that is 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 Peter Sagan was widely tipped to take the win that had so narrowly eluded him 12 months earlier but the sudden change from cold to warm conditions made cramps put an end to his day. Instead, Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde were ready to take over but BMC, Movistar and Cannondale all came up short on the hilly, narrow and uncontrollable roads in Limburg. Roman Kreuziger made it nto a very dangerous group in the finale and no one ever saw the strong Czech again as he rode away to a surprising classics win that saved the spring season for his team. Behind, Gilbert put in a searing acceleration on the final Cauberg climb to leave everybody else behind him but Valverde and Simon Gerrans managed to join just after the top. The trio failed to worked together on the flat final stretch and so a small group joined them to sprint it out for 2nd. Valverde proved his speed to be the best of the rest while Gerrans rounded out the podium. This year Kreuziger will be back to defend his title but like last year he is more of an outsider while Valverde, Gilbert and Gerrans again take the favourite roles. Sagan has changed his schedule to skip the Dutch classic in favour of Paris-Roubaix and so the Slovakian won't be at the start of this year's race.


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 itself 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 251.8km km, they come in very quick succession and leave no room for recovery.


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 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 has 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 - last year the finish line was located 1800 metres 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 hoped that this would spur on some of the favourites to attack from afar but neither the world championships nor last year's race saw the main contenders play their cards before the Cauberg. However, things got back together on the final flat section, opening the door for more potential contenders and 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 last year, 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 to late attacks and there is no doubt that the race is way easier than it was in its previous incarnation.


As always, the 251.8km race - which is unchanged compared to last year - 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, with Cauberg being visited the most 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 rather big gap before the key teams start to chase. After 54.1km, the riders go up the Cauberg for the first time after having done four climbs in the first part of the race. They then do a big 108.5km loop with 16 climbs before they go up the Cauberg for the second time.


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 next circuit is 68.1km long and contains 8 climbs in addition to the Cauberg. This is usually where the race really starts as it is now time to start to attack. Several teams want the race to be hard or have teammates up the roads when their captains make their move and so this is usually a very aggressive phase of the race. This is a very exciting part of the race, with constant changing race situations as breaks are brought back, riders are dropped and different groups merge. 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 has emerged after the top. With their new location much farther from the finish, they are unlikely to play the same kind of important role. The main favourites are now likely to wait for the final climb up the Cauberg but for several very strong riders their 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.


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 a new 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. After the top of the latter, it's a false flat for few kilometres before the fast descent on a long straight road that leads to the bottom of the Cauberg 2.5km from the line where the riders 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 crest the summit as they make a sharp left-hand turn before continuing along a long straight, slightly rising road to the finish. The favourites will be expected to save their energy for one final acceleration on the climb but if the best riders fail to work together after the top, a regrouping and more attacks could set the scene for 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 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.


Until now, the spring season has mostly been dominated by pleasant weather conditions but Sunday could offer a few more challenges than the recent races. The race is likely to take place under a cloudy sky, with the temperatures reaching a maximum of 17 degrees. However, rain is forecasted for most of the day and this will only make the race harder, the selection bigger and the battle for position more dangerous.


There will be a moderate wind from a southwesterly direction and of course the riders will have all kind of wind direction as they zigzag their way through the Limburg province. This means that there will be several sections with crosswind. In the finale, there will be a cross-tailwind on the Geulhemmerweg and a cross-headwind on the Bemelerberg. On the final descent, there will be a cross-headwind that gradually turns into a crosswind. On the Cauberg, there will be a crosswind but more importantly, there will be a cross-tailwind on the final flat stretch to the finish. The 2012 Worlds proved that the wind direction in this section plays a crucial role, with the first races all offering a headwind and ending in a bunch sprint. Only the elite men's race had a tailwind and in that event Philippe Gilbert managed to stay away to the finish. Sunday's wind direction means that it will be easier to maintain any gap obtained on the climb.


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 the 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 specialist and probably the one with the broadest range of potential winners.


The climbs are so short that the most punchy 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.


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 to the finish - but most riders waited for one 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. Last year Roman Kreuziger proved that the undulating terrain and the narrow roads are perfectly suited to attacks and even though the final 30km are no longer as tough as they used to be, it is still possible for brave and strong riders to deny the favourites by attacking from afar. With the favourites all excelling in this kind of finishes, however, a select group of favourites probably arrive at the bottom of the Cauberg for the final time.


Like last year 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. Last year we were down to just three riders at the top and 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, the door is open for attack 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 Paris-Roubaix. Finally, a bigger regrouping may take place after the top which could even bring strong sprinters like Michael Matthews, Ben Swift, and Bryan Coquard into contention.


The race may have several potential winners and race scenarios but one rider stands out as the man to beat. Alejandro Valverde has probably had the best start to his season ever and he is currently in splendid condition.


Among the current professionals, only Davide Rebellin and Philippe Gilbert have more wins in the Ardennes than Valverde who is perfectly suited to the hilly courses in the Benelux countries. Hence, it is somewhat of a mystery that Valverde still hasn't won the Amstel Gold Race and there is no doubt that it is high on his list of priorities to make the plate full in the Ardennes by adding a Dutch win two his two Liege victories and one triumph in Fleche Wallonne.


When he came back from suspension, Valverde had obviously paid a price for his long absence and even though he got his comeback off to a great start, it was evident that he lacked his usual punch in the biggest races. It wasn't until he had completed his first grand tour that his legs started to come around but then he was back to his usual consistent self. Throughout the final part of the 2012 season and the entire 2013 season, he finished at the pointy end of the races in nearly all his major targets but with only four wins early in the season, he was still not back to being the perennial winner he once was.


In 2014 that has certainly changed and it is hard to deny that Valverde is now better than ever before. He dominated the Vuelta a Andalucia, won his home race Vuelta a Murcia, finished on the podium in Strade Bianche and took an impressive win in Roma Maxima by attacking from afar before going on to even play a prominent role in a few cobbled races where he was only expected to gain experience. He returned to his favourite terrain at the GP Miguel Indurain where he proved his impressive superiority. Instead of saving himself for the uphill sprint, he attacked from afar and took a dominant solo win.


In the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he and Alberto Contador were clearly in a class of their own and if he hadn't raced to win the race, he would have been a clear runner-up in the race. Due to tactical considerations however, he failed to make use of his superiority on the climbs and when he put in a below-par showing in the final time trial, he could only manage 5th. While most of his rivals took a few days to recover, he was back on the attack in last Sunday's Klasika Primavera but ended up playing the team card, allowing Gorka Izagirre to chase the win.


No other riders has played such a dominant role in so many and so different races and so far Valverde has not even contesting any of his biggest targets. Those start on Sunday when the Amstel Gold Race marks hi first big objective of the season.


Valverde would certainly have preferred the race to finish at the top of the Cauberg as he is very hard to beat in that kind of uphill sprint. The new finale makes things slightly more complicated but he has all the skills to excel in that kind of finish as well. With his current condition, Valverde will be virtually impossible to drop on the Cauberg and we wouldn't be surprised if he rides away from everyone else on the steep slopes. If it comes down to some kind of a sprint, he will be very hard to beat. Last year he beat his three biggest rivals in that kind of battle, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans and Michal Kwiatkowski, in the sprint for 2nd. He has often proved that he is faster than Gilbert in that kind of sprint and in Pais Vasco he beat Kwiatkowski. Gerrans may be a harder nut to crack but the long, hard race should be in Valverde's favour.


Valverde's big first big challenge will be to make sure that there won't be another Kreuziger surprise. Movistar, BMC and maybe Katusha and Orica-GreenEDGE can be expected to do most of the early chase work and last year both teams came up short in the finale. Movistar usually have a very strong team to control races and even though this terrain doesn't suit them perfectly, they field a strong roster. Gorka Izagirre and Jesus Herrada are currently in excellent condition and Ion Izagirre and Benat Intxausti will both be key riders. John Gadret is an excellent climber but the constant battle for position has never favoured the tiny Frenchman. Ig any kind of regrouping takes places at the top of the Cauberg, however, Valverde can expect to be isolated, making him vulnerable to attacks.


Valverde has often raced the classics rather conservatively, responding to attacks and relying on his fast sprint. This year, however, he has been more aggressive than usual and it will be interesting to see if he tries to get clear on his own on the Cauberg. Last year he wasn't too willing to cooperate with Gerrans and Gilbert after the top but this year it would probably be a good idea to do so. If some of those three riders and Michal Kwiatkowski emerge as the strongest, all of them will have confidence in their sprint and there should be a better chance that they will work together to stay away to the finish.


The finale will be difficult to handle tactically but being the strongest climber at the moment and one of the very fastest finishers, Valverde is the favourite to finally take his first Amstel Gold Race win.



His biggest rival could be a youngster who undoubtedly will win a few Ardennes classics in his career. One year ago Michal Kwiatkowski surprised his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team when he finished 4th and 5th in Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne respectively during what was just his second Ardennes classics campaign. This year he has obviously stepped up his level even more and now he lines up as one of the major favourites in the biggest one-day races on the calendar.


Kwiatkowski may have attracted a lot of attention for his performances in stage races but in fact he is more of a one-day rider. He still seems to fade a bit towards the end of his multi-day events which is not unusual for such a young rider. In the classics, he won't have to deal with his recovery problems and by his excellent performance in last year's race, he has proved that he can handle the long distances.


Earlier this year Kwiatkowski again underlined his skills on the short, steep climbs when he won the Strade Bianche and he even did the unthinkable of beating Peter Sagan in the uphill finish to the Piazza del Campo in Siena. The Amstel Gold Race course suits him down to the ground and he will be very hard to drop on this kind of ascents.


Kwiatkowski's main asset is his very fast sprint that will make him an obvious danger if he is there at the top of the Cauberg. In last year's Tour de France he almost beat Sagan in a flat sprint and this year he put his skills on show in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco when he finished 2nd, 3rd and 3rd respectively in the race's three bunch sprints. Valverde, Gerrans and Gilvbert certainly can't feel assured that they will beat the versatile Pole in a sprint finish. His performance in the Basque Country where he finished 2nd overall and 3rd in five out of six stages, proves that he has hit peak condition in time of the Ardennes races which are a big target for the young Pole.


Kwiatkowski is part of a very strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step team that can play the cards of Wout Poels, Jan Bakelants and maybe even Tony Martin in the aggressive finale and save their Polish captain for the Cauberg. Zdenek Stybar plays the role of a joker who can feature both in a sprint or in an attack. That will take the pressure off Kwiatkowski whose only concern will be the distance. After all, he has only featured at the end of a 250km classics once and last year he had a disappointing performance in Liege. If he can overcome that hurdle, however, a big classics win could come already at the age of 23.


In his heydays, Philippe Gilbert won this race twice in a row and at that time he was virtually unbeatable in an uphill sprint on the Cauberg. However, Gilbert is no longer the rider he once was and after a few difficult seasons, the Belgians cross their fingers that their star will return to his former level in this year's classics.


This year Gilbert has had a different preparation than he has had in the past. For the first time, he skipped the entire cobbles season and instead followed the traditional schedule for an Ardennes contenders by doing the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. In 2013 he also did the Basque race but back then it was a last-minute decision to skip Flanders in favour of the stage race as his performances in the first Flemish classics proved that he need more racing under his belt to be ready for the Ardennes.


BMC have desperately tried to find out what has gone wrong these past two years and they have tried to put a more singular focus on the Ardennes. This means that Gilbert has had only a few major results and all his spring season will depend on the outcome of the races over the next few weeks.


At this point Gilbert may have fewer results than he has had in the past but with a changed focus it would be a mistake to compare the different seasons too much. He showed solid condition in Milan-Sanremo where he tried to challenge Peter Sagan in the uphill sprint in Arezzo and he was one of the select few who was brave enough and had enough left in the tank to attack on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo. He only returned to competition in Pais Vasco and he put in a rather solid performance in the Spanish race.


He may have failed to win a stage but he climbed well in terrain that should be a bit too hard for him. In the second stage he was one of the first to join Alberto Contador and Valverde when the superior duo had taken off on a late climb and he went on to make a solid solo attack in pursuit of lone escapee Tony Martin. On stage 5 he did an impressive job to bridge across to a very big and strong breakaway and after getting caught, he fought bravely to stay with the favourites for quite a while. He ended the race by doing a decent time trial.


As usual, Gilbert had one final hit-out in the Brabantse Pijl and this year he won the race for the first time since 2011 when a victory in the semi-classic opening his all-conquering Ardennes campaign. Despite winning the race, however, Gilbert certainly wasn't at his 2011 level. Back then, he arrived at the finish with Bjorn Leukemans and took  an easy sprint win but this year he had to rely on his fast finish in what almost seemed like a bunch sprint.


It is hard to gauge Gilbert's performance in last Wednesday's race. When he put in his attack on the final lap, no one was able to follow him. He put in a solid performance to bridge across to the leaders but it proved to be all in vain as the move was closed down almost as he had made the junction. Nonetheless, he showed his good condition as he still had enough left in the tank to win the sprint despite having been chasing on his own into a headwind for 8km. It left a solid impression but also made it clear that his rivals will not be up against a 2011 version of Philippe Gilbert.


Among the Ardennes classics, the Amstel Gold Race is the one that suits Gilbert the best. While he has to be at his absolute peak to  win on the harder course in Liege and the time when he can win Fleche Wallonne is probably over, the shorter climbs in the Netherlands suit him perfectly. Despite his woes in the past two years, he has always managed to be a protagonist on the Cauberg. Last year he was the strongest rider in the finale and in 2012 he won his Worlds title by dropping everybody in this finish. Even if he is not back at 100%, Valverde may be the only one who can keep up with him when he puts down the hammer.


By beating Michael Matthews in Brabantse Pijl, Gilbert again proved that he is a very fast finisher but he is probably not quite as fast as the likes of Valverde, Gerrans, and Kwiatkowski. Nonetheless, he still has a decent chance in a sprint finish and no one can rule out that he does what he did at the 2012 Worlds: ride away from all his rivals to take a solo win in Valkenburg.


Simon Gerrans has finished on the podium in this race twice and it is probably the most important event in the first part of his season. While he always skips Fleche Wallonne whose finish doesn't suit him and he openly admits that Liege is too hard for him to win, he has done nothing to hide that victory in the Amstel Gold Race is one of his career objectives.


It is certainly no wonder that he is gunning for the win in Valkenburg. He excels on the short steep climbs that litter the course and among the favourites, he is probably the fastest sprinter of them all. He has won bunch sprints in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de France - in the latter event he even beat Peter Sagan - and it would be a good idea for his rivals to get rid of him before the top of the Cauberg.


Last year Gerrans had an outstanding season and put in his probably best-ever performance in the Amstel when he followed Gilbert and Valverde on the Cauberg before sprinting to a podium finish. This year, however, he doesn't seem to be as strong as he was one year ago. In 2013, he arrived at Amstel with a fresh stage victory in Pais Vasco but this year he seemed to be struggling a bit more in the Basque race. He may have played a key role in Michael Matthews's stage victory but there's a big difference between the Amstel Gold Race and the easiest stage in the Basque race.


After his great start in Australia, he has been bothered by illness that took him out of both Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. He claimed to feel the lack of racing when he returned to competition but still chose to abandon Pais Vasco at the midpoint. Last Wednesday he put in a solid performance at Brabantse Pijl where he played a key role in the very strong breakaway in the finale before supporting Matthews in the sprint. However, he didn't give the impression that he is firing on all cylinders.


Nonetheless, it would be dangerous to rule out Gerrans. The Australian champion is a master in picking and reaching his targets and as Amstel is number 1 on his list, it would be a rare occurrence if he hasn't timed his condition to perfection. As he has all the skills to win this race, most prominently a very fast sprint, and  is part of an excellent team with several options, it would be no surprise if he finally takes his first vicory in the Ardennes.


The likes of Valverde and Gilbert both have a reason to regret the changed finale but the one who has most reason to be frustrated by the change, is certainly Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard got close to the win in 2011 when he was riding excellently well up the Cauberg but that year he was up against the invincible Gilbert and so had to settle for second.


Rodriguez is excellent in an uphill sprint and only very few can follow him if he takes off on the steep section at the bottom of the Cauberg. If he escapes on his own, however, he now has to stay clear on the final 1800m section and as everybody knows time trialing is certainly not Rodriguez' forte.


Nonetheless, it would be dangerous to rule out the Katusha leader. This year he has done far less racing than usual as he heads into a hard period that includes both the classics and the Giro. In fact, the only race he has done since the end of February is the Volta a Catalunya. However, he won that race in impressive fashion and that was certainly no mean feat as it involved beating the likes of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana in the race's first mountain stage. If he has the same kind of condition, it is not impossible for him to take a solo win in Amstel.


However, it is hard to imagine him dropping Valverde but he may still have a chance. If he arrives at the top with the likes of Gilbert, Valverde, Gerrans and Kwiatkowski, they will be mostly concerned by each other as they are all way faster than Rodriguez in a sprint. This may open the door for a surprise attack and with nobody there to lead the chase, it could be Rodriguez' time to shine in the Netherlands.


Rui Costa performed far below expectations at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and quickly settled into a domestique role for teammate Damiano Cunego. However, it may be a mistake to put too much emphasis on that performance as he had arrived straight from a hard training camp in Sierra Nevada and such hard efforts often take their toll on the riders.


This time there won't be such issues as the Ardennes Classics are his big first big target in 2014. On the other hand, he has now had time to recover and shout reap the rewards of his hard work in the Spanish mountains. Costa did very well in last year's Ardennes classics where he finished in the top 10 of Liege-Bastogne-Liege despite working in support of Valverde. This year he will share the captaincy role with Cunego and Diego Ulissi and will be allowed to play his own cards.


As he proved at last year's Worlds and with his win in GP Montreal a few years ago, he is a master in these hilly one-day races and most importantly he seems to be better in the very long races. He may not be quite as explosive as Valverde and Gilbert and so will be better suited to a race like Liege but he won't be far off the mark when the best riders make their move on the Cauberg. As he proved in Florence last September, he is a very wily athlete who knows when and how to make his move and it could very well be Costa who uses any kind of hesitation at the top of the climb to take another big win.


If Costa fails, Lampre-Merida have another card to play. After several years of struggles, Damiano Cunego has finally returned to his best form. In the Vuelta al Pais Vasco he was one of the very best climbers and even put in a solid ride in the final time trial - a discipline in which he usually performs very poorly - to take 11th overall.


As a past Amstel and three-time Lombardia winner and Worlds silver medallist, Cunego has proved that he is an excellent rider for the hilly one-day races and more importantly he has proved that he can handle the distance. Even though he is explosive and fast, he probably won't beat Valverde in a direct battle in the finale and so needs to play his cards wisely. An attack from afar or after the top of the Cauberg could see Cunego return to glory.


Belkin are licking their wounds after the loss of Robert Gesink but the lanky Dutchman was never their best card to play in their big home race. Instead, the team will focus on Bauke Mollema who over the last two seasons has proved that he excels in the Ardennes. This race is probably the one that suits him the least but he has finished 10th twice in a row and certainly has the skills to excel on this course.


After a slow start, Mollema found his legs in the second half of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, finishing 5th in the queen stage and putting in a great performance in a breakaway one day later. The days when Belkin are expected to carry the responsibility in their home race are long gone and so he can allow himself to play the role of an outsider. Despite being a fast finisher, he won't win in a direct battle against the race favourites but he has done nothing to hide that he plans to attack after the top if he remains in contention at that point and as he won't be too far behind the best at the top, he could be the one to succeed.


It would be a mistake to rule out Vincenzo Nibali. The Ardennes classics are his first big targets and even though he eyes are mostly on Liege which suits him the best, he will certainly give it a shot on Sunday. The climbs may be a bit too short and the race a bit too easy for him but there is no doubt that he will invent something somewhere.


His condition may be a bit uncertain as he hasn't raced since Milan-Sanremo and arrives straight from a training camp on Mount Teide and a recon ride over the Tour de France cobbles. However, he knows how to time his condition for the big races and he should be ready. He knows that he will be beaten on the Cauberg and we would expect him to attack in the finale of the race, leaving the sprint to Enrico Gasparotto. It will be difficult to make it to the finish but last year Kreuziger proved that it is possible.


For a few years, it seemed that Tom-Jelte Slagter would not live up to the great expectations that had been placed on his shoulders but after joining Garmin-Sharp, the Dutchman has obviously stepped up his level. At Paris-Nice he won two stages and would probably have won the overall if he hadn't had a mechanical in the final hairpin bend in the queen stage. He proved that he had maintained his high level by finishing 2nd in the GP Miguel Indurain and went on to climb with the very best in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where only the final time trial denied him the chance to finish in the top 10.


The latter performance was very impressive as on paper the Basque race should be a bit too hard for Slagter. On the other hand, tomorrow's course may be a bit too easy to his liking but he certainly has the skills to excel in this kind of race. Slagter is no pure climber but excels on the short, steep ascent and he has a very descent sprint to finish it off. He mostly excels in uphill sprints, meaning that he would have preferred the finish to be located at the top of the Cauberg, but with the road rising slightly all the way to the line, tomorrow's finale is certainly no bad match. He still struggles a bit in the very long races and he is purely aware of this fact. Hence, his main objective is the Fleche Wallonne but as he has improved so massively this year, we wouldn't be surprised if he can suddenly also handle the distance. Like most other riders, he won't beat the favourites in a sprint but a gutsy attack may bring him far.


Daniel Martin is a versatile athlete but his real forte seems to be the hilly one-day races. Last year he finished 4th in Fleche Wallone, won Liege and was fourth in Il Lombardia and so he can both handle hard courses and long races. He is a very explosive rider with a fast finish and so he has all the skills to excel in this race.


This year he is mostly focused on the Giro and he knows that he may not be quite as strong as he was one year ago. He hasn't raced an awful lot this season but he seemed to be riding well when he returned to competition in the Brabantse Pijl despite staying at the back of the peloton to take it easy. He may have to rely a bit more on tactics and luck but don't be surprised to see him in the finale.


This year Romain Bardet has taken a massive step up and it won't take long for him to be a perennial contender in the biggest races. With Carlos Betancur's condition being at a low point due to his recent injury, the Frenchman will lead Ag2r and he has the skills to excel on these short, sharp climbs. He was one of the strongest in Paris-Nice where he had so much bad luck but his real standout performance came in Catalunya where he finished fourth overall despite being up against most of the best riders in the world. Since then he has only done last Tuesday's Paris-Camembert  but the Ardennes classics are a big objective and so he should be ready. He has a decent sprint but is not match to the fastest riders in this race and so have to attack in the finale.


Wout Poels excelled in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he was clearly number three in the climbing hierarchy, just below the formidable pair of Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. He used a combination of tactics and strong legs to win the queen stage and came away from the race with a top 10 finish. The performance proves that he has now fully recovered from his 2012 Tour de France crash and he is obviously better than ever before.


In the past he has had big ambitions for the hilly classics but has always come up a bit short. With his higher level, however, this is set to change in 2014 and he obviously has the skills to excel in these races. He did the Brabantse Pijl and despite putting in an aggressive performance, he wasn't too impressive. That race, however, might have been a bit too easy for him and even though the same could be the case for Amstel Gold Race - he has already made it clear that his big goal is the Fleche Wallonne - hewill certainly show himself on home soil. He is part of a very strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step team and with Kwiatkowski saving himself for the sprint, we will be very surprised not to see him attack in the finale. If he gets a gap, his rivals may only see him again when it is all too late...


***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Michal Kwiatkowski, Philippe Gilbert

*** Simon Gerrans, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rui Costa

** Damiano Cunego, Bauke Mollema, Vincenzo Nibali, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Daniel Martin, Romain Bardet, Wout Poels

*Bjorn Leukemans, Tony Gallopin, Zdenek Stybar, Enrico Gasparotto, Jelle Vanendert, Michael Matthews, Ben Swift, Daniel Moreno, Diego Ulissi, Jakob Fuglsang, Roman Kreuziger, Samuel Sanchez, Geraint Thomas, Greg Van Avermaet, Nathan Haas, Maxim Iglinskiy, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Thomas Voeckler, Tom Dumoulin, Davide Rebellin



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