I think the first time I ever paid Amstel Gold any real attention was 2006, in the infancy of being able to stream races live on the internet, I watched it in a bike shop where I was waiting on a service and saw Frank Schleck take off for a solo jaunt through roads that seemed to have been dug into the countryside and little hills that passed between rustic looking farmers fields. The scenery was quite similar to where I was living and riding at the time and since then I've had a little soft spot for the race.
Since those days, however, both my own interest and that of the cycling world at large seem to have dwindled. The race's critics argue that it's 33 meaningless hills and a sprint up the Cauberg. The organisers countered by adding a 2km run in after the final hill to keep riders with less than world-class 2 min max power interested but still Philippe Gilbert has won it three times (four if you count the worlds on this course) and a host of similar "can-attack-up-a-sprint-climb-after-250km" riders have followed in his wake. Indeed, my own memories of the race in recent years are Thomas Dekker nearly hitting a parked car, traffic islands, trying to build an Ikea bed with a hangover (long story) and Enrico Gasparotto getting booed all the way to the line and beyond.
But enough of this negativity! We're finally free of Flanders Classics and their atrocious maps of their parcours! Let's have a look at what the riders will be maintaining position through before the sprint up the Cauberg:
The race takes in the looping, criss-crossing laps of a small area that we associate with the spring classics and is pretty much unchanged from last year. The race's central focus is the town of Valkenburg, and just to hammer home the importance of the Cauberg (and keep the cafe's along it nice and full all day) climb's its most famous asset four times, three in the last 100km.
There are other climbs, however and the Keutenberg which preceeds the penultimate climb of the Cauberg is the steepest hill in the Netherlands, topping out at 22%. It is here that a solo break or small group can split away to try and make it to the finish coming, as it does, roughly 30km from the finish. If you're heading to watch on the roadside, you won't be able to enjoy this, however as the hill is closed to the public for safety reasons.
The city of Valkenburg itself is a sleepy affair away from race day. It has a castle, some medieval city walls, a fairy tale theme park and a preserved farming village which I imagine to be something like Amish Country, English.
Pip Gilbert makes it three in 2014
The key to this race, like most of the spring races, is positioning. If you can fight your way into a place where the elastic isn't snapping over every hill meaning you have to spend the next 10km chasing back on along narrow, twisting country lanes, then you'll save energy you can use more profitably later on.
What Happened Last Year?
The traditional group of riders-who-can't sprint manufactured a gap on the Keutenberg and then let Vincenzo Nibali do all the work with Tony Martin and Simon Clarke waiting in the wings should he falter. As the peloton bore down on the group with 15km to go, the three kicked again and as the race crested the Geulhemmerweg climb. Clarke decided to try alone, in a move designed to help Michael Matthews, his leader, avoid any toil in the run up to the Cauberg.
All this effort was, inevitably, for naught and the race came down to the traditional slugfest on the Cauberg. Ben Hermans opened up hostilities, setting a blistering pace in the service of Gilbert with none other than The Unwelcome Guest himself, Davide Rebellin for company.
As his teammate faded, Gilbert made his move. Sprinting against the gradient, jaw clenched and hunched over the bars, his only rival at this point was Matthews, glued to his back wheel. Matthews looked in all sorts of agony as he fought to hold the wheel on the steepest gradient, with World Champion Michael Kwiatkowski coming up from behind and as the pitch of the hill eased it was the Aussie who looked to be in the driving seat, sitting on Gilbert and awaiting the inevitable sprint.
On the flat run in, Alejandro Valverde came over the top of Kwiatkowski to bridge across to the front two, bringing the World Champion along with Enrico Gapsarotto and a host of others along with him for what was now looking like a select sprint, Matthews must have wondered why he bothered.
Greg Van Avermaet was the first to launch the sprint in earnest and with all eyes on Matthews, Kwiatkowski found a gap right in the middle of the road to win for Etixx-Quick Step.
Who's Going to Win?
Michel Matthews The Aussie seems built for this race. He can sprint from a big bunch, a small bunch, get up short hills if he has to and has a great racing brain. He also is possessed of a team full of nous and ability for the Ardennes with Darryl Impey, Adam Yates and Michael Albasini on hand to keep him positioned well. The fly in his ointment might be Simon Gerrans, however. This will be the first time the two have raced together since the worlds where Matthews was openly critical of his veteran compatriots attempts to win for himself.
Two riders rate in this category for me. The first is last year's winner Kwiatkowski who has apparently dropped 6kg since joining Sky. We saw his improved hill-osity in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke this year, specifically his attack on the Knotkeberg in the latter. My only concern is that perhaps his cobbled campaign has blunted his edge a little. The Little Flower raced from mid march through to Flanders on the cobbles.
Philippe Gilbert has won this race more than anybody else with, as mentioned, three victories plus the Valkenburg worlds. He'll always be a five star favourite as long as he doesn't break his finger punching a taxi driver and then get in trouble for pepper spraying him. What? Oh...
Julian Alaphilippe for Etixx-Qucik Step had a break out year in last years Ardenne. He's been put in harness with Dan Martin as a twin threat for this year's campaign but with the Irishman electing to Skip Amstel he has a rare chance to have the whole team at his service. His form, however, is a mystery after contracting mononucleosis last autumn.
A crowded field this. Tim Wellens is riding but apparently not as leader. His intentions for this year are unclear. Enrico Gasparotto has indicated he is targeting this race and he always positions himself well in the finale. Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink and Pieter Weening are all Dutch and can get up a hill (that sound you can hear is the bottom of the barrel being scraped)
Davide Rebellin, yeah I went there.