The Ardennes Classics kick off this weekend with the Amstel Gold Race. The climbers’ classics begin, with Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege to follow, and after that it’s just a short hop, skip and jump before we welcome the first Grand Tour of 2016. Here’s a preview of what we have to look forward to in this year’s Amstel Gold Race.
The only Dutch one-day race on the World Tour, the Amstel Gold Race defies the misconception that Holland is a land of long flat roads. Over this year’s 248.7km starting in Maastricht and finishing in Berg en Terblijt, the 34 climbs will be visited. But although considered a climbers’ race it’s not a summit finish that greets the riders nowadays. While Damiano Cunego and Frank Schleck have been amongst the purer climbers to have won since 2006, the change in route has suited strong climbers with a powerful finish, as has been shown with riders like Philippe Gilbert, Roman Kreuziger and last year where Michal Kwiatkowski won in the rainbow jersey.
A number of riders who tackled the last classic – Paris-Roubaix – will be continuing onwards while others stop and enjoy a break. Among those set to be present on Sunday is Paris-Roubaix winner Matthew Hayman. Do not expect more fireworks from the 37 year old who won Hell of the North at his 15th attempt though, he will be resuming domestique duties in service of one of two likely options for the team in Michael Matthews (third last year) and Simon Gerrans (third three times).
Team Sky arrive in Holland with a strong line up that includes the defending champion Kwiatkowski. His form is most certainly there after he took the win in E3 Harelbeke towards the end of last month. Like Orica GreenEDGE though, Team Sky have a couple of cards they can play with Sergio Luis Henao arriving here off the back of second place overall in the Tour of the Basque Country behind Alberto Contador.
At Etixx-Quick Step, a team that despite having 22 victories to its name this year so far has still yet to get a World Tour one-day race under their belt, the double act of Julian Alaphilippe and Petr Vakoc performed marvellously to line Vakoc up for victory in De Brabantse-Pijl earlier in the week. It’s also interesting to note the presence of Gianni Meersman, the punchy sprinter that is somewhat like Simon Gerrans when it comes to fast finishes; he must be considered a danger man if the race comes down to a bunch sprint.
What form BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert finds will be a matter of supreme interest as the three time Amstel Gold Race winner returns to the race after a week that has been ‘rocky’ due to out of competition altercations. The former world champion has just one win to his name so far this season and has not raced since the beginning of this month. Being an unknown quantity could play to his advantage if the rest of the field decide to look to the known in form teams to make the pace; but they will not be easily fooled as Gilbert’s record here is a good one; since 2008 he has not finished outside the top 10, three wins, 4th, 5th, 6th and 10th have been his.
2013 victor Roman Kreuziger is back, but unlike the aforementioned riders Tinkoff don’t really have a back up plan should he falter. Robert Kiserlovski possibly, Jay McCarthy as an outside chance for the team; but I think they’re more likely to stick all their eggs in one basket for this one. Outside chances for victory must also include veterans Thomas Voeckler and Davide Rebellin of ProContinental outifts Direct Energie and CCC Sprandi Polkowice respectively.
But for the host nation 2016 presents hope stronger than usual that they might secure their first home win since Erik Dekker in 2001 beat Lance Armstrong. Yes it has been fifteen years since a Dutch win in the Amstel Gold Race, though Boogerd, Robert Gesink and Karsten Kroon have all placed on the podium. In recent years however there hasn’t been a Dutch face on the podium at all, not since ’09; but there is every reason that this could change this year.
May we present exhibit A: Tom-Jelte Slagter. In good form after ninth place in Brabantse Pijl, the Amstel Gold Race has surprisingly not really suited the Cannondale Pro Cycling rider. In three outings here he has placed no higher than 21st, but on paper this is the sort of thing that would be right up his street. He is a sort of Gilbert in the making with his blend of talents; the only question is can it all come together in Holland?
Exhibit B is the ever promising Wilco Kelderman. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Wilco Kelderman is the most talented young rider not to have secured a really big win yet in his career. He has come so close so many times. 7th in the Giro d’Italia at just 23 is a monumental achievement. This year he has been Mr Consistency with two second place finishes and 7th, 13th and 10th places on GC in three stage races so far in 2016. This will be his first one-day race of the year though.
But we’re going to push the boat out and say that if a Dutchman is going to win Amstel Gold, we’d love to see it be Tom Dumoulin of GIANT-Alpecin. He won the hearts of the cycling world with his performance at Vuelta a Espana last season; and justifiably so as he pushed the established climbers to their absolute limits and nearly stood them all up. His form is a little uncertain so far this season although he was strong in Paris-Nice and the Tour of Oman. Another young rider of 25 years of age, but he does know how to close out the big win as he has showed in Vuelta a Espana and Tour de Suisse. He will have to go for a long range effort if he is to win this year; his sprint capabilities are not his renowned strength; but if he is given an inch watch him take a mile!
Stay tuned for more from the 51st Amstel Gold Race here at RoadCycling.