Amstel Gold Race: preview for the climbers’ chapter

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amstel-gold-race 75April 18th, ’14.  The first Ardennes classic of the year is on the horizon with the Amstel Gold Race coming up on Sunday.  In this first preview RoadCycling takes a look at the principle contenders for victory in the Netherlands’ biggest one-day race.

amstel-gold-raceApril 18th, ’14. The first Ardennes classic of the year is on the horizon with the Amstel Gold Race coming up on Sunday.  In this first preview RoadCycling takes a look at the principle contenders for victory in the Netherlands’ biggest one-day race.

 

The cobbled classics are done, the climbing classics have just begun and on Sunday the Amstel Gold Race will be kicking things off in earnest.  A cluster of three races – the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – are the pinnacle races of this particular chapter in the cycling season; with a very mixed array of ambitions set to be on display at each of the start lines.  For some, particularly those in the Netherlands, the Amstel Gold Race is the biggest race of the year, with fans cramming around the edges of the roads as their heroes ride by.  For some it is a stepping stone to the first grand tour of the year – the Giro d’Italia – or even the second for that matter in the Tour de France.  Some are set on getting good preparation and getting race miles in, others line up with these races considered as the season’s primary goals.  Whatever a rider’s motive though, the Ardennes Classics are always a fascinating spectacle; and the Amstel Gold Race is set to be no exception.

Last year Roman Kreuziger caused a slight surprise with his breakaway victory in the Netherlands’ biggest one-day classic.  This year he is back to defend his title along with a host of other top names.  In this preview, RoadCycling looks at the main contenders and principle big names who will fight to wrestle the crown from the Czech rider’s hands in the 2014 Amstel Gold Race.

Whenever talk of the Amstel Gold Race arises – or any other Ardennes Classic for that matter – the name of Philippe Gilbert can never be far from anyone’s lips.  It is as if the Belgian rider was made for these races.  It is unavoidable that he should be front and center as chief contender to the crown.  And the reasons are plain for all to see.  In the Amstel Gold Race alone, Gilbert has finished no lower than sixth in the last five attempts at the race; he has won twice.  He has it in him to blast away the opposition with absolute precision timing on the final climb of the Cauberg.  And if it comes down to a sprint he’s by no means shy of making his presence felt.  

Only yesterday Gilbert proved his form by winning Brabantse Pijl.  Tactical sense says that he shouldn’t have won though.  He’d already expended so much energy chasing to bridge a gap to a leading group on his own.  He should’ve run out of energy.  But from somewhere Gilbert found it in him to gather his reserves and outsprint a highly accomplished peloton.  This is what might single him out as possibly the rider to watch: his ability to go into and beyond the red zone.  The gradients of the climbs in the Amstel Gold Race are quite something to say the least.  It may not look like much, the final climb of the Cauberg, at only 1.2km in length; but after 250km in the saddle a climb maxing at a gradient of 12% is the last thing that anyone needs.  Philippe Gilbert always has a habit of always being in the right place and the right position when it comes to the latter stages of the Amstel Gold Race, and as he showed in Brabantse Pijl when he bested the speed of Michael Matthews, positioning is just about everything in this genre of races.

Which leads us handily on to the Orica GreenEDGE team, and their Spanish opposition in Movistar; two of the finest teams in World Tour cycling never to have won Amstel Gold.  There is so much going for the two teams this year it is hard to know where to start.  Both teams have brilliant front men, with Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde.  Both have enjoyed good form this season, with the Australian winning both his national title and his premier national tour.  Since then he has had quiet form – shall we say – but he remains a man with one of the most consistently high finishes in this race, and with third last year; determination on his and his team’s part will certainly not be lacking.

As for the Spaniard, well, I think I’m right in saying that I need only mention one thing: Tour of the Basque Country.  For the best part of one week Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador fought a battle royale at the beginning of this month.  While Contador won out with truly scintillating form, Valverde produced all the fight of a rider worthy of triumphing in a hilly classic like the Amstel Gold Race.  He has the necessary agression and power to boot and is in many ways the perfect equal to Philippe Gilbert in a race like this.  It is unlikely that he will attempt a breakaway alone like last year’s champion, his tactics will likely be the same as Gilbert’s.  The thing to look out for with Alejandro Valverde, Simon Gerrans and Philippe Gilbert is that their styles are so similar they will likely have each other marked intensely in the latter stages of the race.  When that happens the effect will be something akin to an elastic band as the question begins to be asked with increasing volume: who will explode first?

And what of the defending champion?  Hmmm.  Roman Kreuziger has enjoyed good form, but it seems a little tentative to say that he has had great form so far.  He too was at the Tour of the Basque Country, but in a support role, working phenomenally hard for Alberto Contador; and one has to wonder that had Kreuziger not been present would Contador still have been as good in the finishes as he was?  It was the same story in Tirreno-Adriatico, with Kreuziger again being lieutenant, but his help for Contador was very similar to Chris Froome’s help for Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France; Kreuziger still had it in him to place third overall behind his victorious team leader.

I think the fiercest competition for Kreuziger will come from the upcoming Omega Pharma-Quick Step phenomenon; Polish national champion Michal Kwiatkowski.  The 23-year old’s 2013 season gave mutterings that he could truly be something special and a treat to watch in the future.  Kwiatkowski just missed out on the podium in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, and that after a spring-classic-packed early season from Milan-San Remo through the Tour of Flanders, all the way to Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  This time around not only has he been much more conservative in his approach to the one-day season, not riding any of the Belgian classics up to now and only one race since Milan-San Remo; he has also had a 2014 season that has truly glistened.

First to Spain, three back-to-back one-day races, and his first win of the year at the end of a very testing Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana; ahead of Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky.  Next, to the Tour of the Algarve,  where overall victory fell to the Pole as he defeated the reigning world champion Rui Costa (also present on Sunday) and Alberto Contador in stage 2, before showing off his time trialling pedigree with victory in the next day’s race against the clock.  Strade Bianche was his next victory day, and this must be given particular attention, as in a head-to-head against Slovakian marvel Peter Sagan, Kwiatkowski came out on top!  The ingredients of a truly great rider are all there and I would not be in the least surprised if the Amstel Gold Race saw the further emergence of this young Polish prodigy.

Coming up:  In the next preview of the 2014 Amstel Gold Race, we take a look at the other riders who must not be discounted in the run up to Sunday.  The one-day nearly-s that have been Team Sky and their Brit hoping to end that, the question surrounding the rainbow jersey and its current holder, the great hope of the Netherlands and what to do if BMC’s leader falters.  To be continued . . .

By:  Ed Wright

 

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