Amstel Gold Commentary: Do Riders Make The Race, Or The Course?

Roman Kreuziger, Marco Marcato, and Giampaolo Caruso bridge to the breakaway on the penultimate climb of the Cauberg - Fotoreporter Sirotti

Last week I asserted that the tendency of Amstel Gold to resemble a halfheartedly lively parade until an uphill sprint on the Cauberg was the fault of riders (or, specifically, Philippe Gilbert) rather than an inevitable result of the course as it existed. And now, in the aftermath of Sunday's thrilling race, we have seen the best racing in Amstel gold in recent memory. But can we credit the course changes that moved the finish 1.8km past the Cauberg and added two more climbs?

With so many climbs - 32 in previous years - Amstel Gold has always provided an opportunity for riders to become protagonists in the race long before the sprint finish. If we travel back further in history, before the first finish atop the Cauberg in 2003, we can find ample proof for this. Though Erik Zabel won the race in an admittedly selective bunch sprint in 2000, the 1999, 2001, and 2002 editions were contested by groups of two to four riders. Invariably, the race ended with Lance Armstrong being beat in a sprint finish, but that's another matter.

As the race adapted to its finish atop the Cauberg, the same pattern emerged - aggressive racing in the final 50 kilometers led to a small breakaway gaining traction in the final 10 kilometers and duking it out on the Cauberg in a tactical uphill sprint between only a few riders. Until a few riders with strong uphill sprints were mated to teams with the capacity to control the race in the final 50 kilometers, that is.

So, it is natural to question how the race played out when a solo rider stayed away to victory behind a sprint of some sixteen riders. The teams Gilbert and Sagan wanted the same type of finish as years past, a duel on the Cauberg, their stars trying to pry open a gap over the top that could be maintained to the line like Gilbert's world championships victory on the same finish in September. Did the course finally turn their plans on their head?

If I may back up a minute, one wonders if the type of racing that took place for second place is what the organizers had in mind when they moved the finish past the top of the Cauberg. Philippe Gilbert's unmatchable acceleration got him a gap, but perhaps not so large as if he had not had a lengthy chase back to the confines of the peloton in the middle portion of the race. Caught under the flamme rouge by Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde, the three riders relatively equally matched in a sprint looked at each other, pedaled a little, and looked at each other again, all while a group of another 13 riders clawed their way back to the trio, rejoining at 300 meters to go and prompting Gilbert to launch a suicidally long sprint in hopes of salvaging a podium.

The tenseness in the chasing group was palpable, its effects direct and incontestable. Had Kreuziger not been up the road, Michael Kwiatkowski would have been on the podium despite not being among the three strongest riders on the Cauberg. That is what racing is about, is it not - the pitting of strength versus savy versus luck?

But, Kreuziger was up the road, which brings us back to the original question posed - was he there because the course prompted aggression, or because riders finally again seized the opportunity that was there all along? The chase was mis-timed, perhaps over-confident in its ability to bring the breakaway back, and then to bring Kreuziger within striking distance on the Cauberg. BMC was tired, down at least two men thanks to their efforts to bring Gilbert back to the front end of the race after his crash. Cannondale stopped working as Peter Sagan lost power to cramps in the final 35 kilometers.

These are the things that racing is made of - miscalculations, risks taken that pay off, beating the odds. In the 2012 Giro d'Italia, Thomas De Gendt turned the race on its head on the penultimate stage, the queen stage, by attacking early and beginning the climb to the summit of the Stelvio with a substantial lead. He won the stage and gained enough time to finish the race in third overall, but as spectacular and captivating as his ride was, it was not, I am sure, what organizers were expecting with that course design. But, they laid forth a route that allowed riders to improvise and create their own script. That is what Amstel has always been - the narrow and often treacherous roads make chasing hard, the climbs tip the balance towards the breakaway more than usual, and the relentless succession of climb after climb after climb allows bold riders to grab the race by the scruff of its neck, should they want to. Racing is always difficult, but it has never been too difficult to reach the Cauberg with sufficient lead to survive the chase behind. The group behind a breakaway is small enough to impede cooperation most years, giving us the type of racing we saw on Sunday. So Kreuziger's victory? I think it could have happened on the old course. Or the old course before that when the climb finished before the Cauberg.

So, do we judge the course changes a success? Personally, I think they had little to do with how Kreuziger won, but they did shape the battle behind him in an interesting way. Power was replaced by caginess in the sprint and the shattering and regrouping of the lead group is something I could stand to watch more of in the years to come. After all, if you want an uphill sprint, there's always Flèche Wallone, and there is always the chance of another breakaway animating the race as this year.

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