Dion Smith of Mitchelton-SCOTT produced a strong top 20 performance in the curtain opener of the Ardennes campaign, the Amstel Gold Race, as Mathieu Van Der Poel lived up to his pre-race favourite status, taking the win in extraordinary circumstances ahead of Simon Clarke and Jakob Fuglsang.
At 265.7km in length the Amstel Gold Race combined length with 35 climbs in total across the day which would take more than 6 hours to complete for the fastest riders. New Zealanders Patrick Bevin of CCC Team and Dion Smith of Mitchelton-SCOTT lined up for the race, with Bevin having come from Itzulia Basque Country and Smith from the recent De Brabantse Pijl-La Fleche Brabanconne.
It took until the third of the day’s climbs for the break of the day to go clear with Michael Schär of CCC Team, Marco Minnard and Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert, Nick van Der Lijke of Roompot-Charles, Tom Van Asbroek of Israel Cycling Academy, Paolo Simion of Bardiani-CSF, Jimmy Janssens of Corendon-Circus, Julien Bernard of Trek-Segafredo, Grega Bole of Bahrain-Merida and Sport Vlaanderen Baloise’s Thomas Sprengers and Aaron Verwilst. Together they grew a maximum lead of 8 minutes before Team Sky and Astana took the initiative in the peloton to bring the break back.
With 88km to go the gap had come down to 5.20mins and with 86km to go the break his the climb of the Cauberg with only Paolo Simion dropping back. That gap continued to drop towards 3 minutes by the time the race reached 70km to go. Astana led the way, with a multitude of different contenders in their ranks. Gradually they lifted the intensity with Team Sky, Lotto Soudal, Dimension Data all present in their wake, as the gap dropped to 2 minutes with 56km left. The break’s lead continued to plummet to 1.14mins with 47km remaining.
It was on the climb of the Gulperberg that the first big move emerged from the contenders. With the gap down to 1.05mins, Tom Van Asbroek began to stretch the breakaway, but Mathieu Van Der Poel launched a stinging acceleration that saw no one initially able to go with him. The gap to the leaders was immediately slashed to just under 45 seconds, while Van Der Poel teamed up with Gorka Izagirre of Astana. The attack immediately put distance into the bunch and put the rest of the bunch into the red to try and bring them back.
The attack didn’t last, and with 39km to go the duo were reeled back into the bunch as a crash brought down Alexey Lutsenko of Astana and Mathias De Witte of Roompot-Charles. The timing of the crash couldn’t have been much worse for the Kazakh rider as Deceuninck-Quick Step put down the pace and swept up the break with 38km to go. Julian Alaphilippe hit the front of the race and pressed on, appearing that maybe he was working for Philippe Gilbert.
With 36km to go Alaphilippe headed up the road solo as behind him Jakob Fuglsang of Astana and Matteo Trentin of Mitchelton-SCOTT tried to come across. Fuglsang was able to come across to the Frenchman, while Trentin struggled to get across, eventually uniting with Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky and Michael Woods of EF Education First. Behind them a much reduced chase group with most of the favourites kept on; although they did so without Peter Sagan who’d been dropped.
Fuglsang and Alaphilippe gained a 15 second advantage over Trentin, Kwiatkowski and Woods quickly, and a 43 second lead over the major chase group. Onto the climb of the Keutenberg, the steepest climb in the Netherlands hitting 22% in places, Woods dropped back as the main chase group held that deficit to about 44 seconds. The group was stretching and at risk of capitulating though, with Greg Van Avermaet of CCC Team and Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb among those doing the damage.
With 22km to go and with 3 big climbs still to come Alaphilippe and Fuglsang continued on with their lead to the nearest chasers still at 14 seconds. The big chase group were being led by BORA-Hansgrohe and EF Education First who were sharing the load, although being infiltrated a bit by Deceuninck-Quick Step. The race looked to be slipping away from them though as the gap had gone out to almost a minute.
On the final climb of the Cauberg EF Education First put in a big effort to bridge back to Fuglsang and Alaphilippe. Jelle Vanendert of Lotto Soudal made a big move and was pursued by Dimension Data’s Roman Kreuziger and AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet with 17km to go. That move was brought back though and with 15.5km to go Alaphilippe and Fuglsang crossed the finish line with a 25 second advantage. Behind Trentin and Kwiatkowski, Maximilian Schachmann of BORA-Hansgrohe went on the attack and so too did Simon Clarke of EF Education First and Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo.
Kwiatkowski was the strongest of the two primary chasers and with 13km to go Trentin was dropped, leaving the Pole to try and bridge across the 12 seconds remaining to the leaders on the climb of the Geulhemmerberg. Meanwhile the big chase group were also starting to chew into the leaders’ advantage. Still, though, the gap to Alaphilippe and Fuglsang wasn’t really coming down, Trentin managed to catch back up with Kwiatkowski and the major chase group still had a minute to make up if they hoped to win. It was advantage Fuglsang and Alaphilippe with just the climb of the Bemelerberg to come.
On the slopes of the Bemelerberg Fuglsang launched an attack to try and distance Alaphilippe but to no avail, while Mathieu Van Der Poel made a move himself to try and mop up some of the places ahead of him. He joined a small group of four that for all intents and purposes looked like it was fighting for minor placings.
With 5.3km to go the gap for Alaphilippe and Fuglsang was 47 seconds, while Clarke and Mollema were still ahead of the Van Der Poel group. Fuglsang was attacking the Frenchman though, knowing he couldn’t just take his companion to the line where Alaphilippe would have the superior sprint. Attacks weren’t working though and the pair proceed onwards towards the finish with Trentin and Kwiatkowski still 3rd and 4th on the road, Schachmann still 5th, and Clarke and Mollema finally caught with 3km to go by Van Der Poel and co.
Suddenly Fuglsang appeared to adopt a new tactic, not attacking Alaphilippe, but instead making him do all the work. Meanwhile Kwiatkowski attacked Trentin who in turn was caught by Schachmann, and as that happened Van Der Poel led his group across the gap to the chasers and within striking distance of an outside chance of victory. Their cause was helped by the poker games that Fuglsang and Alaphilippe began to play, allowing Kwiatkowski to come across the gap.
Kwiatkowski caught the leaders with about 800m remaining while Van Der Poel pushed the pace with 400m to go to try and get across the last of the gap with eight riders on his wheel. In the end Alaphilippe was forced to lead out the sprint and that was Van Der Poel’s cue to empty the tank and put in the sprint of his life to catch and pass the leaders and secure an emotional victory ahead of Simon Clarke, with Fuglsang taking third place ahead of Alaphilippe and Schachmann.
54 seconds behind the leaders Dion Smith crossed the line in a group containing Daryl Impey, Michael Matthews, Roman Kreuziger, Robert Gesink and Diego Ulissi.