Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) showed incredible resolve to win his third Amstel Gold Race, launching a decisive strike on the 900m ascent of the Cauberg – the climb on which he won the world road race championships two years ago.
The Walloon was set-up perfectly by team-mate, Samuel Sanchez, who launched an early attack at the base of the finishing ramp, and as he faded Michael Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), briefly made the running.
Defying the stinging lactic acid that must have filled his legs, however, Gilbert, winner in 2010 and 2011, found the strength to launch his own attack. With gritted teeth, he raced alone over the crest of the Cauberg and on to the flattened strip to the finishing kite, while men who moments earlier had cherished thoughts of victory were forced to fight for minor placings.
Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol) was the best of the rest, producing his best performance in two years to equal the second-place finish he recorded here in 2012. Australian champion, Gerrans, was third, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), winner of five races already this season, could mange no better than fourth. Kwiatkowski was fifth.
The race in detail
The formation of an early breakaway came as no surprise and nine riders had moved clear after just 15km, including Lotto-Belisol’s Pim Lighart and Preben Van Hecke (Topsport-Vlaanderen), the Belgian who did so much to animate February’s Tour of Oman.
By the fourth climb of the day, the Bergesweg, the escapees had extended their lead to 13.45, doubtless aided by the presence of Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale), winner on the ‘double d’Huez’ stage of last year’s Tour de France. The presence of young talents who triumphed in the junior and under-23 races on an almost identical course at the 2012 world road race championships – Matej Mohorič (Cannondale) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) – would also prove to be of benefit. By the first of the race’s four ascents of the Cauberg, the breakaway’s advantage had extended to 14.41, but still none of the teams with favourites seemed concerned.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was the first of the men fancied for victory to abandon; forced out of the race after about 160km by a crash. The world number one left the race in similar circumstances last year too, but was able to bounce back and record top-five finishes at La Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastgone-Liege. The crash also ended the hopes of Trek Factory Racing’s Andy Schleck, winner of the 2009 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The Luxemburger had told RCUK last October that he had always enjoyed the Amstel Gold Race and felt he could win.
Perhaps it was a fear of crashing and a push for the front of the bunch that stirred the peloton into action, but a concerted effort trimmed the advantage of the escapees to 11 minutes by the eleventh climb of the day, reached at almost the 150km mark.
Approaching the half-way mark, the breakaway maintained a lead of over 10 minutes, and thoughts that they might stay the distance began to seem less outlandish. Movistar, riding for Valverde, second last year, were the first to show a rising concern, and gathered en masse at the head of the bunch to chase the break.
As the race dipped below the 100km to go mark, the gap had been reduced to 8.08, and with 14 climbs remaining, the peloton seemed to scent a regrouping for the first time. Pirmin Lang (IAM cycling) tossed aside his rear wheel in disgust after being beset by a puncture, and having received a replacement from a member of the Shimano Road neutral service team, began a lonely pursuit of his erstwhile colleagues to regain his place in the breakaway.
Orica GreenEDGE were next on the front and joined in numbers by BMC Racing. The men in red and black were among a growing number of parties with an interest in bringing the race back together, with team leader, Gilbert, having shown the form required for victory by winning at Brabantse-Pijl just days earlier.
The combined forces of an increasingly nervous peloton and stirring crosswinds created a big split in the bunch at the 91km to go mark. Some 40 or 50 riders rode ahead, including BMC Racing and Movistar, while those suddenly dropped found themselves with a difficult challenge to regain position.
One kilometre later, and the leaders hit the 900m ascent of the Cauberg for the second time, one with an average gradient of seven per cent and a maximum of 13 per cent. Lutsenko led them up its lower slopes before Mohorič brought them to the summit. Their relatively unhurried demeanour was in stark contrast to the shattered peloton, producing the net result of a reduction in their advantage to 7.20.
The favourites were already seeking position as they rolled into Vakenburg, with Giro d’Italia winner, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), among those visible at the sharp end of the bunch. Valverde and Kwiatkowski also took up advanced positions. As they rolled beneath the finish barrier for the second of four occasions, the gap to the leaders had been reduced to 6.36.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin), fifth overall in last year’s Tour de France and a man fancied for the win at Amstel by several insiders, pulled to the side of the road with 80km remaining for a brief bike change. Calmly unloading his bottles from the bike, he climbed aboard its replacement and made his way through the race convoy to the back of the bunch.
The breakaway still held a useful lead of 6.17 as the race reached the 75km to go mark: an advantage that equated to about 14km on the road. Tinkoff-Saxo threw its resources at the pursuit, still kindling hopes for team leader, Roman Kreuziger, the defending champion. The rainbow stripes of world road race champion, Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), were also prominent.
Up ahead, Riblon took over the lead of the breakaway, perhaps underlining the fears of the men behind, that a class act was among the escapees. The springiness of his ascent came in sharp contrast to a sudden cutaway by television cameras to his colleague and Ag2r-La Mondiale’s nominal team leader, Carlos Betancur. The Paris-Nice champion remained stubbornly at the rear of the peloton, heightening the importance to the French team of Riblon’s escape.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) was the next to abandon. The Welshman, who had ridden so strongly a week earlier at Paris-Roubaix, had crashed, but word from the team suggested that he had not been seriously hurt. His team-mate, Josh Edmondson, was another who called time on the race, leaving Ben Swift, enjoying the best season of his career, as the strongest card for the British team to play. Edmondson later Tweeted his disappointment, blaming his abandonment on mechanical problems. Thomas also Tweeted an explanation, pinning the blame on a rider who he said had stopped in front of him.
Omega Pharma-Quickstep were the next of the peloton’s ‘super teams’ to put in a shift on the front of the bunch. Their effort cut the advantage of the breakaway to 5.48 with 72km remaining. Behind the men in turquoise and black, Gilbert, Valverde, and Kreuziger rode shoulder-to-shoulder. None of the favourites was prepared to allow a key rival from his sight.
Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) abandoned the race in unexplained circumstances. The Birmingham-born Irishman had lingered at the back of the peloton for much of the day and disappeared with a similar lack of fanfare.
The peloton’s ascent of the Bemelerberg put paid to the hopes of many of the fringe contenders, including Team Sky’s Ian Boswell, inexplicably wearing the dossard of nominated team leader. Michael Schar (BMC Racing) an ever-present at the head of the bunch, continued his remorseless pacemaking, resplendent in the white jersey of Swiss champion.
With 60km remaining and a gap cut to 4.44, the breakaway riders began to wilt visibly as the peloton adopted an ominous arrowhead formation. Almost inevitably Schar remained at its tip, but the increased attentions of Astana were notable. The Kazakh team had arrived with four possible winners in Niabli, Jacob Fuglsang, 2012 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, Maxim Iglinksky, and 2012 winner, Enrico Gasparoto.
The twenty-fifth of 34 climbs, the 1600m Loorberg, hoved into view for the breakaway, still moving in a smooth through-and-off formation and positioned comfortably in the centre of the narrow Dutch roads. The peloton, by contrast, presented a poor fit for such slender sections of tarmac, forcing the riders to pay more than usual attention to the hazards of curbs and road furniture. Despite their relative lack of comfort, however, the riders of the bunch continued their remorseless progress, reducing the advantage of the breakaway to 4.08 with 57km remaining.
When the peloton hit the same slopes, the advantage had been reduced by a further 20 seconds, and all of the major contenders were positioned at the sharp end. Lampre-Merida’s Damiano Cunego was spotted near the front for the first time. The prospect of attack was clearly unsettling the pre-race favourites.
Fifty kilometres remaining seemed to represent a tipping point for Kwiatkowski and his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team-mates. The Belgian super team massed at the front of the bunch, driving the peloton to renewed effort. In three-time and reigning world time trial champion, Tony Martin, the young Polish rider had perhaps the ultimate ally, and the peloton’s biggest ‘engine’ was clearly in the mood to assist.
The breakaway raced on ahead like frightened rabbits. The narrow ribbon of tarmac would doubtless aid their cause, but their escape began to look doomed. Nicola Beom (Bardiani-CSF), unmissable in florescent green, was the first to declare his hand, accelerating on the wicked ascent of the Gulpenerberg and leaving this former allies scrabbling for his wheel and shedding those who lacked the strength to respond.
Nibali danced on his pedals at the head of the field for the first time when the peloton’s time to tackle the 15 per cent climb came. His superior climbing skills placed further pressure on the escapees, whose advantage was fast decreasing to the three-minute mark for the first time.
Just six riders from the original 10-man break remained as they toiled up the nine per cent, 800m ascent of the Kruisberg. Boem was back among them, his attack on the Gulpenerberg having failed to bear fruit.
The real action, however, was unfolding behind as a panicked peloton raced at still greater speed in a bid to gain position before the almost 90-degree left-hand corner that marked the approach to the Krusiberg. Martin bit the dust, or to put it more accurately, the hedge. Television replays revealed that his demise had been hastened by team-mate Kwiatkowski. The German’s return to the peloton was delayed by a slipped chain, but even the appearance of a new bike, courtesy of the OPQS team car, did not end his woes. Martin slipped his pedals as he climbed aboard his new steed, and began a long and frustrating chase back on later than he would have hoped.
Tommy guns the opposition
Who else but Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) would ignite the race with less than 50km remaining? The gurning Frenchman, who knows no other way to race than to attack, made his move as he crested the Kruisberg with exactly 40km to go. His assault inspired an elite group of five riders to join him, including Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Fuglsang, Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) and the indefatigable Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), desperately seeking some reward for his spring campaign, after losing by the narrowest of margins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders.
The 1600m Fromberg was the next challenge faced by the breakaway, with Boem again looking strong, despite having only Riblon and Van Hecke for company. With the parcours at its narrowest and most twisting, the leaders sought to make hay, while behind, the elite chasing group followed a similar strategy, descending into 90-degree turns and sprinting hard back up to speed.
Despite their efforts, however, the peloton remained within striking distance. Katusha hit the front for the first time, ensuring that the loss of Rodriguez would not ruin their day. In Dani Moreno, winner of last season’s La Flèche Wallonne, the Russian squad still had a significant hand to play.
Six becomes nine
The three leaders looked jaded as the reached the brutal, 1.7km ramp of the Keutenberg, and Boem unhitched as the slopes reached their peak gradient of 22 per cent. The chasers retained their momentum as they encountered its same challenge, but the peloton was now within touching distance.
With the climb crested, Voeckler surged again. Van Avermaet, a constant presence at the centre of affairs this spring, found the energy to respond, and the group found its considerable resources strengthened by the appearance of Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha), Paul Maertens (Belkin) and Bjorn Leuekmans (Wanty Groupe-Goubert). Further reinforcement was gained as Boem was swept up.
Despite their additional strength in depth, the remaining two escapees from the original break looked in better shape. While the Voeckler group dangled a perilous 20 seconds ahead of the peloton, Van Hecke and Riblon were still some 1.44 down the road and working together effectively. They swept through the tight left-hander in to Valkenberg to begin their penultimate ascent of the Cauberg far from beaten.
The plight of the Voeckler group, however, increased with every pedal stroke. Tom Jelte-Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) was among those who appeared at the head of the peloton for the first time as Riblon and Van Hecke crossed the finish line to begin a last, 20.5km lap.
One to go
Australian champion, Gerrans, winner of the Tour Down Under, led the peloton through the sharp right-hand turn that signalled the start of the final tour, knowing that only 12 seconds separated him from the Voeckler group. Curtailing the advantage of Riblon and Van Hecke, however, looked like a more demanding challenge.
Members of the Voeckler group looked back over their shoulders with increasing regularity as the summit of the Geulhemmerberg approached. Many appeared to be considering counter attacks for when the inevitable catch was made.
With a 50-second advantage in their pockets and just 15km remaining, Van Hecke and Riblon may have dared to dream. Sharing the workload in a common interest, they continued their efficient progress, while their immediate pursuers continued to dangle in front of the bunch on a long, straight section of road.
Voeckler and many of his confederates were absorbed by the bunch, but Van Avermaet and Fuglsang stubbornly refused to submit and continued to ride on ahead. Fuglsang’s contribution, however, was notably less than that of his Belgian counterpart, casting him in the role of marker for Niabli, Iglinsky and Gasparoto, rather than as a willing accomplice.
Despite the Dane’s lack of effort, Van Avermaet and Fuglsgang made contact with Riblon and Van Hecke with a little under 10km remaining. The advantage of the newly-formed quartet was narrow indeed. As they hit the seven per cent slopes of the kilometre-long Bemelerberg, just 10 seconds separated them from a Garmin-driven peloton, riding hard for Slagter. Van Hecke finally cried ‘enough!’ and was subsumed.
Giampaolo Caruso (Kauthsa) took his place, driving from the peloton to reach the breakaway. His efforts, however, and the continued assault of Van Avermaet and Fuglsang, were in vain. They were swept up by an energised peloton, driven by Orica-GreenEDGE.
Gilbert the great
Not for the first time this season, Gerrans hovered ominously at the head of the bunch, riding third wheel behind two team-mates. Two riders back, Kwiatkowski held a watching brief, while BMC Racing continued to protect the interests of Gilbert.
The peloton raced into Valkenberg at top speed, flying through the sharp right-hander. Kwiatkowski enjoyed the perfect lead out, but it was Sanchez who attacked first. The Pole responded, clawing his way back to the Spaniard’s wheel as the former Olympic champion waned. Kwiatkowski took up the lead briefly, while Gerrans spearheaded the peloton, but the time had come for Gilbert to launch his decisive attack.
Refusing to be denied, the Walloon, back on the climb on which he’d won the world road race championships in 2012, gritted his teeth and poured every ounce of energy into the run to the line. WIth a lead of several hundred metres, Gilbert refused to relax, powering beneath the flamme rouge alone.
Kwiatkowski was reduced to a time trialing position with Valverde and Gerrans on his wheel. Vanendert emerged from behind them all to take up the pursuit of Gilbert, but as he reached top speed, Gilbert was already sitting up and beginning his celebrations.
Two more races are due before the culmination of this year’s Ardennes Week. Wednesday (April 23) will bring La Fleche Wallonne and with it the Mur de Huy, while Sunday (April 27) will bring the hundredth edition of La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Amstel Gold Race 2014 – result
1) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing – 6.25.07
2) Jelle Vanendert (BEL) – Lotto Belisol +5″
3) Simon Gerrans (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE +6″
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar
5) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
6) Simon Geschke (GER) – Giant-Shimano +10″
7) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin
8) Enrico Gasparotto (ITA) – Astana
9) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha
10) Yukiya Arashiro (JAP) – Europcar +12″