While thinking through the list of favorites for Amstel Gold, I was struck by something - the wide range of riders who are a legitimate threat to win or, at the least, podium. And it would be a shame to talk about five or eight riders and leave another ten undiscussed, would it not? But one only has so much time, either for writing or reading, so we must condense things a bit.
Further into my pondering, I was struck by something - there are three distinct ways to win Amstel, and three groups of riders who are likely to win, all with different talents. So, here is our rider preview, focusing on how to win if you are...
Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Alejandro Valverde, Gianni Meersman, Enrico Gasporatto
Notice anything in particular about these five riders? All have a fast sprint, especially at the end of a climb-heavy day that gets rid of all the regular sprinters. And that, my friends, is exactly what Amstel Gold is with its more than 3,000 meters of climbing. The finish of the race is no longer atop the Cauberg climb but instead is located 1,800 meters down the road, which dips slightly before rising casually to the line. Just enough time for things to come back together for a sprint, really.
So if one of these riders wins, it is most likely to come from a sprint of 5-30 riders who summit the Cauberg together and charge towards the line. But what might make that situation likely? First, they will need the second half of the race to be rather sedate, keeping the peloton mostly together. Not that these riders are in grave threat of being dropped, but because they will need teammates to help control things leading into the Cauberg, position them, and perhaps chase down a rogue rider or three off the front in the final two kilometers.
Who do I like out of this group? It's impossible to look past Peter Sagan, who has beaten even Mark Cavendish in a sprint this spring. However, his form may be starting to wane after a long classics campaign starting in Milan - Sanremo, while Gerrans and the others are just now hitting their peaks. Simon Gerrans has looked awfully fit this spring and has won a few stages in week-long races already in sprints, so he is the most likely to step out of Sagan's shadow.
Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Nario Quintana, Joaquím Rodriguez, Peter Sagan
Moving backwards from the final 200 meters, the final obstacle is the fourth ascent of the Cauberg, which is 1,200 meters long and reaches 12% in the middle slopes. In last year's World Championships, Philippe Gilbert attacked on the final third of the climb and got a big enough gap to stay away to the finish, located exactly where this year's Amstel Gold finish line is. With a powerful enough attack, and enough confusion behind, a late solo attack could easily stay away.
These four riders all have the explosive ability to pry open a gap in a few hundred meters on a climb and carry a large enough gap over the top to give them a fighting chance. With the exception of Sagan and Van Avermaet, there are also faster sprinters than these riders, which means they can't just follow moves and hope to place well in a group finish. But if the group behind is larger, a gap alone may not be good enough. No, there must be some initial confusion about who will chase and if a large group is left behind, there might be teammates who can help close down the gap for quicker sprinters.
This is why I think Greg Van Avermaet has the best chance out of these riders, followed by Nario Quintana. Both have teammates who are also considered favorites - Gilbert and Valverde - who competitors will be unwilling to drag back up to the front of the race. Last Wednesday in Brabantse Pijl, Van Avermaet came agonizingly close to winning, jumping clear inside the final two kilometers and sticking everyone else in the break with the choice between losing by letting him ride away or by dragging Gilbert and Sagan up to him. I can certainly see the same situation happening on Sunday.
Greg Van Avermaet, Nario Quintana, Michael Albasini, Sergio Henao, Moreno Moser, Simon Geshke, Dan Martin, Bjorn Leukemans, Thomas Voeckler
This is where chance starts to come into play more, for these riders are unlikely to win a sprint or have a more explosive jump on the Cauberg than the Gilbert group (with the exception of Van Avermaet and Quintana, who may play their cards two different ways). No, these riders need an open race - a hard race - that gives them the ability to pry a group of like minded individuals away from the dwindling peloton in the final 20 kilometers.
This used to be the way Amstel Gold was won, even with the finish atop the Cauberg, until Philippe Gilbert began his reign of terror. But in those days, serious attacks started further out from the finish - as early as 40 kilometers - than they have in recent years. Aggression must be the name of the game, both to reduce the number of chasers but especially the number of helpers Gilbert, Gasporatto, Sagan, and others have in the final kilometers. Here, team depth is crucial, with Henao and Albasini both having strong teammates who can soften up the race before the final 3-4 climbs.
To some extent, we know these riders will attack, either because they are their team's best chance or, like Albasini, they have teammates behind who they will want to take pressure off of. But whether it will succeed or not will be determined mostly by the size of the remaining peloton at 20-30 kilometers to go. Here's hoping it's small and these guys have a chance.