With the cobbled Classics done and dusted for another year, attention turns to the Ardennes Classics, swapping pavé for countless short but steep climbs. The Amstel Gold Race will open the week-long trilogy of hilly one-day races for another year.
While one-day specialists (read – Fabian Cancellara) dominate the cobbled Classics, puncheurs, pure climbers Grand Tour contenders alike will head east to the Ardennes harbouring ambitions of glory.
The Amstel Gold Race, first held in 1966 and the biggest race in the Dutch cycling calendar, is the youngest of the three Ardennes Classics, with this year’s race to be held on Sunday (April 14), before the peloton hops across the border into Belgium for La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday (April 17) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege the following Sunday (April 21).
Let’s take a closer look at the route and the riders.
While the Netherlands is renowned for its flat terrain, the slim finger of land which makes up the Limburg province is notoriously hilly. The course is typical of the region, with 34 climbs and 251km of racing making it a war of attrition. The route itself twists and turns, rarely straying too far from the town of Maastricht and a number of roads and climbs are used more than once.
The Amstel Gold Race course packs in more than 4,000m of climbing – comparable with an Alpine stage of the Tour de France – including four ascents of the Cauberg. But while a mountain stage of the Tour may feature three or four major climbs across its route, the Amstel Gold Race is littered with short ascents. While none are particularly long, the accumulative fatigue of so may climbs proves very selective over six hours of hard racing.
The parcours has, however, been tweaked ahead of the 47th edition of the race. Most significantly, the finish line, which since 2003 has been drawn across the tarmac at the top of the infamous Cauberg climb in Valkenberg, has been moved 1.8km down the road to match the 2012 World Championship course and in a bid to stop the race becoming a predictable drag race up the final climb.
“With the finish line a little further on there are more potential winners and that’s attractive,” said race director Leo va Vliet. But while Philippe Gilbert used his explosive power to win back-to-back titles on the old course in 2010 and 2011, the Belgian also dropped his rivals by such a margin that he soloed to victory on the ‘new’ finish to win the world title last September.
A new finishing circuit has also been introduced which includes the climbs of the Geulhemmerberg and Bemerlerberg before the final ascent of the Caugberg which, despite the change, remains the focal point of the race. While the climb averages only 5.8 per cent over its length, early ramps of 12 per cent provide the perfect platform for an explosive rider to get away, cheered on by thousands of fans fuelled by beer from race sponsor Amstel.
The Tour of the Basque Country and Brabanste Pijl are key indicators of form ahead of the Amstel Gold Race; the former a week-long stage race, the latter a lumpy one-day race in Flanders which signals the change in tide from the cobbled Classics to the Ardennes Classics. Any contender for victory on Sunday needs the ability to last the distance, survive the climbs, sprint up the Cauberg and then have a fast enough finish for the final 1.8km run-in to the line. Here are six contenders for the 2013 Amstel Gold Race title.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling): Third in 2012, the Slovak sensation goes into this year’s Amstel Gold Race as overwhelming favourite and underlined his status as the man to beat with victory in Brabanste Pijl ahead of Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM). The 23-year-old poses a finish lethal enough to leave his rivals for dead on the Cauberg and a sprint quick enough to out-pace them should they stay glued to his wheel on the climb. Sagan has played an instrumental role in the 2013 Classics to date, finishing second in Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke before winning Gent–Wevelgem. He then went on to finish second in the Tour of Flanders behind Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard) before sitting out of Paris-Roubaix in order to be fresh for Amstel Gold. Ardennes Week may be a trilogy of races but Sagan says La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are too hard for him, so he will instead will focus his efforts on the Amstel Gold Race before packing for home. Expect him to make the most of it.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): The man Sagan beat into second at Brabanste Pijl, world champion Gilbert is yet to win in the rainbow jersey in 2013. The Ardennes is the Belgian’s home turf but the BMC rider is yet to recapture the form which saw him win all three Classics in 2011. Still, having also won the Amstel Gold Race in 2010 and the World Championships in 2012, Gilbert knows the Cauberg better than most. The Belgian has come close to victory in 2013, finishing third on stage three of the Tour Down Under and a close second behind Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) on stage six of Paris-Nice, and he is perhaps the only rider able to challenge Sagan in a one-on-one drag race up the Cauberg. Second at Brabanste Pijl showed Gilbert is in good shape but whether he currently has the form to go wheel-to-wheel with the Sagan rider is another matter. Also watch out for BMC team-mate Greg Van Avermaet.
Enrico Gasparotto (Astana): Defending champion Gasparotto claimed the biggest win of his career when he pipped Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert to the line to win last year’s Amstel Gold Race. Gasparotto then went on to finish third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege to round off a superb week for the Italian. Skip forward to 2013 and the 31-year-old is without a win so far but has showed signs of decent form, with his best results fourth on stage four of Paris-Nice and a 14th place finish in Milan-San Remo. However, Gasparotto preparations were disrupted earlier this week when he was involved in a collision with a truck while training near Lake Como, although he escaped serious injury and is fit to ride.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE): Another rider coming into form in time to launch an assault on the Ardennes Classics, Gerrans won stage one of the Tour of the Basque Country having also triumphed on stage six of the Volta a Catalunya in March and stage five of the Tour Down Under back in January. Gerrans won Milan-San Remo in March 2012 and went into last year’s Amstel Gold Race with high hopes of improving on his third place finish from 2011 but could only finish 20th. The former Team Sky rider is, in his own words, “super motivated” ahead of the 2013 Ardennes trilogy: “My goal is to go out there and win,” he says, “and we have the team to do that this year.”
Sergio Henao (Team Sky): Henao will go into the race as Team Sky leader and the Columbian is in the form of his life. The 25-year-old won stage three of the Tour of the Basque Country, edging out compatriot Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) on the 20 per cent gradient of the day’s final climb to move into the overall race lead, before going on to finish third overall. Henao made his debut on the European circuit last year, finishing 21st, 14th and 29th in the Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege–Bastogne–Liege respectively and expect the diminutive climber, who also won stage three of the Volta ao Algarve back in February, to be at the thick end of the action this time out. Tour of Britain champion Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, who finished 19th on the Cauberg at the 2012 worlds, is also in Team Sky’s squad.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): The stage race-cum-one day specialist has a rarefied ability to climb with the best of them, while possessing a finish fast enough to win the sprint for the line. Valverde is one of the most talented all-rounders in the sport and his palmares are testament to that, although the Spaniard will forever be tainted by his link to Operacion Puerto. That aside, Valverde has thrived at the Ardennes Classics in the past, although wins at La Fleche Wallonne (2006) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (2006, 2008), and a best of third in the Amstel Gold Race in 2008, suggest his talents are perhaps better suited to the tougher of the races. Another rider in the mould of Valverde is 2012 La Fleche Wallonne champion Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Sunday April 14
13:10-16:00 – LIVE race coverage on British Eurosport
20:30-21:30 – race highlights on British Eurosport