Amstel Gold Race preview: THE OUTSIDERS?

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amstel-gold-race 75April 20th, 14It’s always a mighty difficult thing predicting a winner of a bike race.  Take the Amstel Gold Race for example.  There are some 200 riders there, all handpicked by their teams for this event, technically any of them could win.  

amstel-gold-raceApril 20th, 14It’s always a mighty difficult thing predicting a winner of a bike race.  Take the Amstel Gold Race for example.  There are some 200 riders there, all handpicked by their teams for this event, technically any of them could win. 

 

Usually there are 15-20 or so who can be selected out from them as probable winners, but even so, sometimes a complete unknown comes into the equation and shocks the cycling world.  One person’s list of probable victory contenders is another person’s list of outsider hopefuls and vice versa.  In part two of the Amstel Gold Race preview we take a look at our list of ‘outsiders’ for the win in the first of the Ardennes classics.

There always seem to be a number of teams that are there or there abouts in the classics but there is one team, aptly considered one of the super teams of world cycling that hasn’t bridged the gap between good classics team and proficient classics winners.  While Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Trek Factory Racing have made the Belgian cobbles their own in recent years, and while Katusha and BMC have done the same with the Ardennes races, Team Sky have been close but no cigar on more times than they would care to mention when it comes to one-day classics of the past year or two.  They are the current undisputed kings of the Tour de France, masters of those three weeks in July; but the one-day scene is just not as strong for a team that is so . . . strong.

But they could be changing that.  Their answer?  A 26 year old British rider by the name of Ben Swift.  Now, it is always a dangerous thing to catch a whiff of good form so young and place a mountain of expectation on anyone’s shoulders; but saying that the 2014 season has really seen Swift earn his stripes.  Eight podium placings this year have gone his way, with a mighty impressive third place in Milan-San Remo to boot.  The youngster doesn’t come across as the typical sprinter who struggles on the climbs, he can certainly hold his own on the short ups; a quality that any Milan-San Remo contender needs.  His last victory in the Tour of the Basque Country came after a difficult day in the saddle, in which he bested the climbing specialists.  But that stage (stage 5 to Markina-Xemein) was difficult, it wasn’t monstrous.  The question surrounding Ben Swift and his ability to win in the Amstel Gold Race is: where’s his tipping point?

Where does the Brit transition from being able to hold his own to pedaling squares?  Will there be enough climbs in the Amstel Gold Race to push him into energy depletion or will he survive?  Swift has said himself that in spite of good form it will take a great day to win, “I know that it’s going to be super tough and even though I’ve got good form I know that I’ll have to be on a really good day.  Amstel suits me a lot better now with that flat section at the top of the final climb though.”  About that final climb.  This is what makes me throw Swift’s name into the list of outsiders.  If it was just an out-and-out sprint up the Cauberg with the finish line at the summit I would’ve ruled him out but there is 1.8km of non-climbing to do afterwards.  And with riders of the calibre of Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen (both race winners on their day) Swift might have the company he needs to make this race his own on this occasion.  But it all depends on how much work Sky put themselves through in the early stages and how much energy Swift can conserve.

Lampre-Merida have a similar problem; although not quite identical.  They have Damiano Cunego – winner in 2008 – in the line-up as well as Diego Ulissi.  They have a good team, capable of winning one-day races and stage races but their last World Tour one-day triumph came three years ago in the GP Ouest France-Plouay.  It has been a long time.  But along with Ulissi and Cunego comes the rainbow jersey; in the hands of Portugal’s Rui Costa.  This is their big weapon, but at the same time has so far proved to be their achilles heel, just as it has been for so many others.  Five times this season Costa’s name has been on the podium at the finish of races, five times though his name has occupied second spot.  It seems to be the curse of the rainbow jersey.  They have the world champion in their midst, a definite plus for any team, but they also have one of the most marked men in the entire world of professional road racing; something that has proved a handicap in recent times.  And yet Costa cannot be discounted.  His storming 2013 season showed that he is something of a power-climber, not the daintiest but exerting an enormous amount of force that can also convert into a fierce sprint finish.  After his second place on the uphill finish of stage 6 in Paris-Nice that same ability has shown itself to be still very present, Costa just needs to convert it into that crucial first win.  And what a stage to do it, in one of the biggest classics of the year.

We must at this stage pause.  It is a race in the Netherlands and there is a World Tour team from the Netherlands, starring a Netherlands rider who would go down as a truly famous win if he was to take the victory.  Belkin Pro Cycling are not renowned as one of the most boisterous teams in the peloton.  They are not like Omega Pharma-Quick Step or BMC or Lotto Belisol, teams that are likely to set the pace for vast portions of races; although they can come to the fore when they see fit.  But they have Bauke Mollema, the great discovery of the Tour de France last year (he finished 6th overall) and two-time 10th place finisher in the Amstel Gold Race out of two starts.  Mollema, riding for a home team in their home race is thoroughly excited about Sunday’s race, “The Amstel is perhaps the best race of the year for a Dutchman,” he says, “After our success in last year’s Tour de France, people will be excited to see us race as well.  It could become a wonderful edition.  As a team, we hope to provide the people with a good result.”

Here’s a question: what would BMC Racing do if the disastrous happened?  Last year in the Tour of Flanders Omega Pharma-Quick Step had to answer just that same question when Tom Boonen crashed out in the opening kilometres.  What if the same thing happens to Philippe Gilbert the Ardennes maestro?  Well they have two obvious choices the way I see it.  Greg Van Avermaet is the first.  28-years old and brimming with potential, Van Avermaet has already had a busy season through the Belgian cobbled classics and Paris-Roubaix most recently.  His best result was a fine second place in Flanders behind Fabian Cancellara, but has he taken on too much to be effective in the finish of the Amstel Gold Race?

Their second option is their newly signed Spaniard and former Olympic Road Race champion, Samuel Sanchez.  Sanchez could well be in the twilight years of his career but the way he’s ridden so far this year he’s not letting on.  His climbing pedigree is unmistakable and maybe the only reason we’ve not seen so much of him in the classics around this time of year has been because he’s been on a team that have generally just performed better in their home nation’s races (Euskaltel Euskadi).  A solid showing in the Tour of the Basque Country makes me think that should the disastrous materialize he might be who the team looks to.  Hold that thought.

In fact the Spanish contingent could well treat us to a festival of quality riding, especially if you then consider that Katusha are in town.  Last year Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno performed extremely well in the Ardennes races with the former putting in top 6 performances in Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the latter winning Wallonne.  This year while Moreno has been the quieter of the two, Rodriguez has followed up his brilliant finish to last year with victory in the Tour of Catalunya ahead of the seemingly sublime Alberto Contador.  Rodriguez has podiumed in Amstel Gold before, he has podiumed in each of the Ardennes classics in fact; he would be my pick to watch tomorrow, but he will have to make his move on the Cauberg, I don’t think he can afford to wait for a sprint.

So there you have it, some of the movers and shakers and ingredients for the 49th Amstel Gold Race.  Below is our prediction for the top 10 and a few more besides.  Roll on Sunday !

1st:  Alejandro Valverde (SPA) Movistar

2nd:  Philippe Gilbert (BEL) BMC Racing

3rd:  Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-Quick Step

4th:  Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) Katusha

5th:  Bauke Mollema (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling

6th:  Simon Gerrans (AUS) Orica GreenEDGE

7th:  Roman Kreuziger (CZE) Tinkoff-Saxo

8th:  Ben Swift (GBR) Team Sky

9th:  Damiano Cunego (ITA) Lampre-Merida

10th:  Tony Gallopin (FRA) Lotto Belisol

WILDCARDS:

Daniel Martin (IRE) Garmin-Sharp

Tom Jelte-Slagter (NED)

Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Astana Pro Team

Carlos Betancur (COL) AG2R La Mondiale

Thomas Voeckler (FRA) Team Europcar

Geraint Thomas (GBR) Team Sky

 

 

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