First, a little history!
2006: The last time a solo breakaway won Amstel Gold. Frank Schleck attacked a select group of ten riders with 9 kilometers remaining to solo into the Cauberg with 20 seconds on his pursuers.
2009: The last time any breakaway won Amstel Gold. Robert Gesink started the festivities and was joined by Sergui Ivanov, the eventual winner, and Karsten Kroon shortly afterwards. The chasing bunch was a mere 8 seconds behind the winner and numbered some 19 riders.
5: The number of times in the past 10 years of the race that a sprint of more than 3 riders on the Cauberg has determined the outcome of the race.
Start rattling down a list of favorites for Amstel Gold and something starts to hit you... most are sprinting climbers or climbing sprinters, riders with a fast finishing kick. Alejandro Valverde, Simon Gerrans, Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Enrico Gasparotto, Dan Martin are all favorites, and all can sprint more than your average climber or rouleur. If you can't sprint, at least a little, you can't win, or so the modern storyline goes. And there is a nugget of truth to that, for the past three editions have come down to such a sprint and 2009's race was a few hundred meters from the same outcome. Such is the repetitiveness of the sprint outcome we know how to analyze the sprint atop the Cauberg, when is too early to attack, which rider is likely to fade before the line.
The race has become so apparently formulaic, in fact, that the organizers have changed the route some in an attempt to open up the list of riders that can win. Supposedly, moving the finish line 1.200 meters down the road past the top of the Cauberg will open it up for both attackers who maybe cannot sprint so well and riders with a little more finishing speed and less explosive climbing ability.
Whether Amstel comes down to a sprint depends on how the race plays out before the final 20 kilometers. After all, it is much harder to escape, either solo or in a small group, when there are twenty or forty riders with you than when there are ten. In past editions of the race where breakaways have succeeded, aggressive racing has whittled down the group before the final 30 kilometers, opening the door for aggressive riders - and ones that cannot sprint as well, such as Fränk Schleck - to get daylight on a group small enough to suffer cooperation problems. In 2004, there were 6 riders left in contention with 20km to go. In 2007, it was 7 riders inside the final 10km. In 2006, it was 10 riders inside the final 10km.In contrast, the last few years have seen groups large enough to call a peloton still intact at 20km to go. If the race hasn't started to break up by then, it's a bit too late.
So, why the lack of such aggressive racing in Amstel recently? Do riders think it is futile? In part, yes, for the stronger teams in the race have had an abiding interest in a sprint atop the Cauberg rather than a more open - and risky - mode of racing that favors breakaways. Philippe Gilbert has a lot of responsibility for this, as his finish is perfectly suited for the Cauberg sprint, and he has been on teams willing to keep the race together for the past three years, riding a tempo high enough to deter attacks but low enough to ensure workers present in the final part of the race. Last year, Astana contributed to pacemaking, keeping the race together for eventual winner Gasporatto before BMC started doing the same for Gilbert. The teams of those who would benefit from a more aggressive, open, race have been smaller and less dominant.
In 2011, Andy Schleck attacked inside 10km to go, but he was prematurely doomed by having few lieutenants who were credible threats to win who could break things up before he decided to go. As a result, the group came back together, and largely because one of the strongest riders in the race - Jelle Vandendert - was in the service of Gilbert. Had Gilbert been devoid of teammates in the front group, a different story might have played out that day.
In short, if you want a scapegoat for the more formulaic feel of the racing in the past several years, blame Gilbert, not the course.
How Does The Reality Change This Year?
Two big changes are on tap for the race this year. The first is common knowledge by now - moving the finish line 1.200 meters down the road from the top of the Cauberg, adding some flattish ground to cover before the line now. The idea is to break open the race, open the door for late race attacks on the Cauberg's 12% gradients and dually make a larger, flatter sprint also a possibility. The second change is hidden a bit more in the route book but involves upping the number of climbs from 32 to 34, including one more trip up the Cauberg before the finish. When the climbs are so numerous, two more may seem like child's play, but each climb invariably whittles down the size of the group approaching the finish, even if racing is controlled. There is a possibility for more open racing, the type of racing that allows a smaller group to go away before the Cauberg and survive a chase behind, or that drains the teammates of Gilbert and Sagan, making it harder for them to ensure a sprint at the end or a duel that waits until the final climb.
The 2012 World Championships Road Race gave us a preview of what we may expect this year as it shared the same finish as this year's Amstel Gold. Then, controlled racing set up Gilbert for an attack on the Cauberg that gave him a gap that he could hold to the finish. On a finish like this, he and Sagan will be hard to beat, for few riders can hold their wheels in an all-out minute or two minute effort on a climb. And once these riders have flown the coup, who will be willing to chase them down, or able? But lest we draw too many conclusions, let us remember that Amstel Gold has much more climbing than the Worlds course did. Maybe, it is harder to guarantee such an outcome.
The addition of two more climbs does play into the hands of teams who have no fast finisher and must race aggressively, particularly Sky, Vancansoleil, and Blanco. Katusha will need to break things up more early on if Joaquím Rodriguez is to stand a chance. But can these teams overcome the might of BMC, Astana, and Cannondale? That, my friends, is to be determined. The script, however, is not set in stone, and opportunity always exists for the daring.