Amstel Gold: Welcome to Ardennes Week!

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Windmills. Because we're in the Netherlands, after all. 1997 Amstel Gold Race

Yesterday's Brabantse Pijl signaled the beginning of the turn from the early season's cobbled one-day races to the hillier (and smoother!) forays into the hilly regions of southern Belgium and the Netherlands. And while Brabantse signals the beginning of this change, it only truly arrives on Sunday with the Amstel Gold race. And what a race to use for the gateway to a week of exciting racing!

You see, Amstel Gold is the only current race in my memory that is named after a beer. Appropriately, the beer in question is a stark contrast to the heavy trappist ales we drink while watching Tom Boonen pound up the Taiaenberg or fly across the cobbles at Orchies. You see, Amstel Gold is a Pale Lager, a variety of beverage which is lighter on the taste buds. You can enjoy them, yes, but you're likely to drink more of them than a powerful, brooding dark ale. And when that seemed like a fantastic idea at the onset, too many and you're going to regret it - oh, you're going to regret it.

And that is exactly what the Amstel Gold race is about. Shortish climbs on smooth asphault - sounds easy compared to Flanders, no? But just try taking on a lot of those climbs in one sitting. They end up a lot more bruising than you expect them to. And while the heart of the Amstel course is the same as it usually is, there are some intriguing tweaks to the route to fine tune the race that you might want to hear about...

The route of Amstel Gold begins in the Dutch town of Maastrich. Wait, you say, I thought this race has hills! Well, a little known fact of geography (outside the cycling world, at least) is that the southernmost portion of the Netherlands, a little peninsula of territory that is squeezed between Belgium and Germany, has hills. Lots of them, many of which are around 100m in height. After all, Maastrich is a mere 35km as the crow flies from Liege, and we all know how hilly it is near Liege...

Anyways. Lets look at a map. Because all the hills are squeezed in one small area of land, the race makes three circuits of decreasing length, all of which traverse through the city of Valkenburg where the race finishes atop the iconic Cauberg climb. There are a million turns onto skinny, barely-one-lane-wide roads wrought with road furniture. Sound like a classic? Exactly.

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Before the race hits the Cauberg for the third and final time, it has gone over 30 categorized climbs. 30! Most of the climbs are 500-1500m long and hit double digit gradients at some point, though some stray from this formula. Among the most iconic of the climbs are the Keutenberg, Eyserboweg, Kruisberg, and my favorite the Gulperberg. Can't you just imagine someone with bad legs gulping when they see the road tilt up in front of them?

The race has played out in an almost formulaic manner in the past several years - the race sees some aggressive racing by second-tier riders in the last 50 kilometers, but the main story is erosion of the group from behind before a reduced group sprint up the Cauberg. And oh man is it a tizzy of a finish. The Cauberg is 1,200m long with an average gradient of 5.4% - not too bad, one might think. But, after 260km of racing and with a section of 12% gradient midway through the climb, it is a tough one indeed.

In the past two years, Phillipe Gilbert has owned this finish. Before him, Danilo Di Luca (2005) and Davide Rebellin (2004) have won by being the strongest and canniest riders in the sprint. But, every now and then, a breakaway goes away in the final 15km and lasts until the line. See Frank Schleck's first major victory in 2006 or Sergui Ivanov's sprint win over Karsten Kroon and Robert Gesink a mere 8 seconds ahead of a Phillipe Gilbert led pack (seeing a trend here?) in 2009.

The race organizers? They like the breaks.

I told you the route changed, right? Well, this is how - the race organizers have changed the run-in from the penultimate climb - the Keutenberg - to the finish in Valkenberg. Instead of 12.3km of descent and flat run-in to the final climb, it is now 9.6km. Changing this may not seem like a big deal - it is only 2,700m of road, after all - but signs point to a very different dynamic playing out over the next few years. Here are a few predictions...

  1. Andy Schleck and Robert Gesink now have a chance to win. Last year, Schleck the younger attacked solo with 13 kilometers to go to the finish. In doing so, he picked a favorite spot for final attacks - the flat plateau before the descent off the Keutenberg. But Schleck, he was caught with 800m to go after the work Jelle Vandendert did for teammate Phillipe Gilbert. Now, a solo move has a chance at staying away. And small groups? Less likely to get caught while playing cat and mouse on the lower slopes of the Cauberg.
  2. The final 4-5 climbs will be harder. Phillipe Gilbert and Joaquim Rodriguez - the two people best suited for this kind of finish - will need teammates to keep things together until the Cauberg. Everyone else needs their teammates to be doneskie so they can have a chance at a late break. So look for the skirmishes to start a little earlier this year.
  3. Say hello to new faces. This year's World Championships finish in Valkenberg and use the Cauberg. Unlike Amstel, though, the Worlds circuit finishes 1700m after the summit of the Cauberg (similar to how Amstel used to finish in Maastrich, until sprinter dudes started winning too much). So, some sprinter types who can hang on the climbs will be looking for a shot. Tom Boonen, for one, was planning to ride Amstel as a preview. Unfortunately, he's out with minor tendonitis, but guys like Oscar Freire will be here doing valuable recon. Speaking of which...
  4. Oscar Freire! But, wait, he's a sprinter - right? Yes. But he has a very good record at Amstel, actually, because he can actually go up hills a bit. Last year? 6th, a mere 5 seconds behind Gilbert. Pretty good considering only 13 people reached the base of the Cauberg together... He won't win, but I have this little feeling he'll be top 10 again this year.
  5. Phillipe Gilbert will not win. Yes, Gilbert looks short on form this year (though things looked better yesterday). But on last year's course, I can still imagine him winning an uphill sprint based on raw power alone. But with less time to recover from the Keutenberg, I think he won't be fresh enough to win the sprint. He'll be in the top 10, I'm sure of it. But either not in the small break or at the front of a larger group sprint.
Photo by Clive Mason, Getty Images Sport
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