Few things can rival my love for cyclocross, but one is my love for the spring classics, especially the hilly ones in southern Belgium and in the Netherlands. Amstel, Fleche, and Liege are what spring is all about to me. The mixture of climbing prowess and raw power on display has captivated me for years. The cobbles take a specific sort of hardman to master, but the Ardennes classics can be more wide open and that is what excites me.
So, I am attentive to any change in these races to see what will happen in the coming year's racing. And when news comes out of a major shakeup to a race, I eagerly start speculating as to what may happen to the style of racing in the next edition of the race. What news do I speak of? The Amstel Gold Race is moving its finish line from the top of the Cauberg climb - a 1.200 meter affair with an average gradient around 7% and a maximum of 12% in the middle portion of the climb - down the road. Two kilometers, to be exact. The finish should now resemble the final kilometers of the World Championship road race in 2012, which Philippe Gilbert won by attacking on the climb's steepest slopes and holding off a charging duo of chasers and fast closing peleton to win in splendid solo fashion.
As iconic as the finish atop the Cauberg is, it is easy to forget that it was only moved there in 2003. Before, Amstel finished in the city of Maastricht and, until 1991, in Meerssen. The Cauberg has long played a pivotal role in the race, just not as the finish of the race. In the years since 2003, the race has become more predictable - a solo attack or small group escapes on the last few climbs or descents before the Cauberg and is usually caught on the lower slopes of the climb. Big favorites cool their jets, letting teammates reel in escapees, until the final 500m of the race when a lengthy uphill sprint ensures. The final 20 kilometers of the race were hard enough to rapidly erode the peleton, but not enough to allow for real tactical racing. Formulaic racing is no fun to watch, so organizers decided to open the playing field some by adding a flatter finish after the Cauberg, partially returning the race to its roots. The new finish venue supposedly has better capacity for VIP, media, and team areas, but are we really convinced that is the driving reason behind changing a 10-year tradition?
Honestly, this is probably a change for the better. As amusing and thrilling as sprints up the Cauberg have been in the past several years - like when Damiano Cunego and Lars Peter Nordhaug ran into each other around 500m to go in the 2012 edition and Peter Sagan imploded 50m from the line after leading out the sprint - the suspense was lacking. All you really had to do was turn on the TV for the last kilometer and see the break die on the 12% slopes and watch the sprint play out. This year, you will want to watch at least four whole kilometers of racing!
Last year's World Championship road race gives us hints of what to expect with this change to the finale. Gilbert launched on the steepest slopes of the climb, got an initial gap, and held on as chasers argued over who would pull in the final 2.000 meters. Behind Gilbert, Edvald Boassan Hagen worked with Alejandro Valverde to hold off the charging pack behind and won the sprint for second. John Degenkolb, a sprinter with some all-round power, led home the chasing pack a second behind Boassan Hagen. The top five was an interesting mix of sprinters, climbers, and classics studs.
The Amstel course will be more selective than the Worlds circuit - no doubt about this. Degenkolb may find it hard to survive to the finish, though more mature riders like Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen now have a very good chance to do so. The winner will be a toss up between who can make a devastating attack on the climb and hold a gap - a la Gilbert or Fabian Cancellara - and who can win the sprint behind. These changes may entice some riders who focus on the cobbled classics - notably Cancellara and Boonen - to extend their spring campaigns one more week and try for another win. If so, the prospect of Andy Schleck and Tom Boonen both having chances to win in the same race is quite enthralling. Personally, I can't wait until April to see what happens.