Amstel Gold is a young race. Wait, that's a lie, it's a rather old race. Relatively however, it's the baby of the classics. At fifty-two this year it is the youngest race that is treated as at least relatively important with nobody arguing about whether that is true regardless of their opinions regarding the route (Hello, Strade Bianche) and when you compare its age to the week's other races; Flèche Wallonne and Liège, turning eighty-one and one hundred and three respectively, you might wonder how it gained pretty much equal status to at least the former. But if you haven't heard the story of Amstel's creation, you will hear it somewhere else anyway, so as I like to do I'm focusing on the here and now, with the riders who should be duking it out on the hills of the Netherlands and Belgium over the next week.
Who's the main man? That would be Alejandro Valverde, who at thirty-six years of age is having the best early season of his career, winning all three stage races he's ridden (Andalucia, Catalunya and País Vasco) with rides impressive enough to beat Contador and Froome on a proper mountain-top finish, Dan Martin in an uphill sprint and Contador again in a time-trial. He's the undisputed leader of a focused team.
Who's in Support? That focused team composes Dani Moreno (Flèche winner 2013, even if he has perhaps lost some of his spark since then), Marc Soler (admirably helped Valverde to first while finishing third himself in Catalunya) and not a whole lot of other big names. Obviously there are jokes to be made about Betancur, and he's on the startlist all week after not finishing most of the cobbled races, Movistar's punishment detail. The team is unlikely to be getting in too many moves — it's all for Valverde.
What are their chances? Extremely, extremely good. Valverde not winning Flèche Wallonne is unlikely enough to seriously worry the space-time continuum and while there's a chance that Amstel will be a little too easy for him it's hardly like he's out of the picture. Looking ahead to Liège he's aiming for his fourth win and given the way this course has lent itself nicely to a group reaching the finish together he can certainly be counted as the favourite. He's the only man who can achieve Gilbert's triple from 2011.
2. Quick-Step Floors
Who's the main man? This question is a lot easier than it was a couple of days ago. Julian Alaphilippe's knee problem opens the door for Dan Martin to stake his claim as leader.
Who's in Support? Numerous people who could lead most other teams comfortably, and could well end up leading this one. Philippe Gilbert's Flanders win made him the active rider with the most Monument wins, but surely his form must be fading by now — he's been on the go since attacking on the Berendries in Dwars Door Vlaanderen even if a decent top twenty in De Brabantse Pijl showed that he still has something in the tank. He should probably have the lead for Amstel Gold - a race that Martin has no fondness for - but Flèche Wallonne is no longer a race that suits the Walloon. Then you've got Gianluca Brambilla, Bob Jungels and Peter Vakoç, and you've got a team full of jockeys without enough horses to get anything done. On Quickstep. Imagine that.
What are their chances? With so many top riders in the one place Quickstep have got a team that has to (you guessed it) just go mental. They've got the problem of having nobody who can get close to Alejandro Valverde in a sprint (Martin's probably the closest, but I've lost count of the times I've seen him attack with the Murcian on his wheel and get duly blown to shreds in the sprint) so they're faced with the same problem their cobbles team had. That's fine for Flèche, and the second place that has Martin's name on it is waiting patiently for him to grab it, but as a rule Quickstep will win solo, or they won't win at all. It pretty much ruins their chances for Amstel, at least. In Liège...we'll see.
Who's the main man? Simon Gerrans? Maybe? For Amstel, anyway. Or, maybe, possibly anyone else? Andrew says it all about the Australian.
Who's in Support? The Yates brothers are down to do the latter two races and you'd better believe that they're not going to be working on the front for Gerrans. Then you have Amstel winner Kreuziger and Michael Albasini, second in Liège. Orica have an extremely effective team for these races, and an aggressive strategy should work pretty well for them too — isolating Valverde and leaving him behind if possible is almost as important for them as it is for Quickstep.
What are their chances? The main reason they aren't ahead of Quickstep is that we haven't seen much from their riders so far this year. Adam Yates won a small one-day race in Italy, Simon one in Spain, while Albasini picked off a stage of País Vasco in a reduced sprint, but Kreuziger has been pretty nondescript for the last few
months years, as has Gerrans. Gerrans might wait for the sprint and get an acceptable fifth in Amstel, while whichever Yates turns up (they can't at the same time or the pact they made with their team buses is voided) might do well enough at Flèche.
4. Team Sunweb
Who's the main man? Michael Matthews, for now. A win on the first stage of País Vasco in addition to a decent TT effort proves he has some form going into Amstel.
Who's in Support? There's a fairly interesting mix at Sunweb. Warren Barguil and Wilco Kelderman are a couple of climbers who could get into some interesting breaks, even if these races don't seem made for them. Then there's Tom Dumoulin, who's skipping Amstel and Flèche, but at the same time isn't somebody you want to be chasing down at the end of Liège. Add that to Sam Oomen, who is so hyped that he has to do something sometime, and Simon Geschke, a decent domestique and you've got a decent team to back up Matthews when he wins on Sunday.
What are their chances? Matthews is going to win on Sunday, isn't he? Sunweb are only fourth because I'm previewing two (sort of three) races and they're only favourites for one, but I can't see past Matthews for Amstel. Past that, Barguil will probably be their bet for Flèche but he's likely only good for a top ten. I'd say Dumoulin is a good card to have in Liège, but the course has not worked well for a long range move in recent years.
5. Team Sky
Who's the main man? Geraint Thomas? Nope, he's racing in Italy. Diego Rosa? Him too. Wout Poels? Knee injury. All that leaves Michał Kwiatkowski for Amstel and Sergio Henao later on. Kwiatkowski's spring speaks for itself — wins in Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo ensure his season is already a success. Henao has been almost as successful, snatching Paris-Nice from Alberto Contador while wearing a new national champion's jersey.
Who's in Support? Kenny Elissonde, whose cunning plan for avoiding domestique duty is to be too small to slipstream behind, plus a number of taller workers including Gianni Moscon, who is even more of a wildcard than he was on the cobbles. Despite taking their first Monument win in the Ardennes last year, Sky aren't bringing as fearsome a team to these races as they could be.
What are their chances? Kwiatkowski is my bet to finish second in Amstel, but after that race he's going to be about as useful as a chocolate seatpost. If he finishes in the front group of Liège I will be very surprised and it's got to be a fact now that he doesn't have the kick for Flèche. No, as the peloton leave the Netherlands Henao has to become the leader of Sky. A podium in Flèche looks pretty attainable for him, but I struggle to see him defending Liège for the team.
6. UAE-Team Emirates
Who's the main man? It's got to be Ruí Costa. A podium finish in Liège last year could have been better had the former world champion a better sprint and if a GC win in Abu Dhabi this year was aided and abetted by Contador and Quintana's gamesmanship, he was still the guy smart and strong enough to attack at the right time, a quality extremely useful in these races.
Who's in Support? Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes will go into the Ardennes with their own ambitions — Ulissi certainly will have his eye on Amstel should Ben Swift not get into the front group. Then they've got Matteo Bono (hey, remember that time he attacked in Liège and we all had great fun? Never again, okay Matteo?) and a group of other Italians they hoovered up from Lampre whom you might have heard up to fill up the roster.
What are their chances? They're going to be relying on luck, but they have riders who can capitalise if such a resource makes itself available. Flèche looks like a long, painful training ride, but in Liège they have more than one rider capable of getting into the right move.
7. Team Bahrain-Merida
Who's the main man? Sonny "In case you hadn't guessed, this is another team only up as high as they are because they have a guy well-suited for Amstel" Colbrelli should be their top man for the start of the week, probably transitioning to Enrico Gasparotto as the hills get steeper. A win in De Brabantse Pijl gets Colbrelli to a favourite's slot for the Dutch race, but Izagirre
Who's in Support? Whoever didn't collapse in the Roubaix velodrome? Oh, I mean Ion Izagirre, who has never done well in these races. Then again, he was wearing a green M on his back the whole time, so we'll see. Then there's Bole and Visconti. It's not that I forgot they existed, it's just that I wasn't used to seeing their names.
What are their chances? Colbrelli has to give Matthews a run for his money in Amstel, surely. Gasparotto wears the number one dossard on his back, but winning Amstel last year is as much of a qualification for winning it this year as having the nicest signature on the sign-in sheet. In Belgium, I like their chances a lot less. It doesn't seem ridiculous to say that Izagirre could do something in Flèche but make no mistake, if Colbrelli doesn't win Amstel, this team have lost their best chance for a result next week.
Who's the main man? Do Cannondale ever have a main man? That would work fine as a rhetorical question but I'm going to answer it — no. They have about twenty-five underachievers, and they're bringing most of them over the next week, as it seems. I'd say Uran probably goes in as the leader, but the fact that that's a guess is just another reminder of how many ways Cannondale have to annoy me.
Who's in Support? They've got the works, that they have. There's Bettiol. There's Woods. There's Slagter. There's Brendan Canty, whose first name I have included so that someone will remind me exactly why he's important in the comments. There's Van Baarle. There's Skuijns, who is desperately hoping that somebody willing to write a contract watched Coppi e Bartali. There's even Formolo, notable because (and this one's getting repeated, so watch out) he got the team's last World Tour win, approaching two years ago now.
What are their chances? Oh, there's great underachieving potential in this bunch. Bettiol last year had his four best days of racing in the Tour de Pologne, GP Plouay, GP Quebec and GP Montreal, which are the best days to be on form, ask anyone in the promotion division of the UCI. Slagter hasn't done much since getting fifth and sixth in Flèche and Liège in 2014, but he's very proud of his record for being invisible for the longest amount of time while simultaneously wearing fluorescent green.
Oh, and apropos of nothing I'd just like to remind you of the time that Rigoberto Uran climbed wheel to wheel with Quintana up Zoncolan. Remembering it? Shaking your head at the incongruity? Me too. Maybe an attack on the climb to Ans could work for him. like that time when he won that thing in Canada? Cannondale's wealth of riders perfectly suited for these races gets them on the list, but those riders will have to do some convincing that they can actually capitalise on their talent.
9. Direct Energie
Who's the main man? Bryan Coquard, riding his very visible orange bike to some possible success in these races. He's also mainly here because of Amstel.
Who's in Support? Lilian Calmejane, mainly. With wins in Etoile du Bességes, Coppi e Bartali and Circuit de la Sarthe he has really been mopping up the small stage races. You can certainly mock those races for having an attendance that might have been improved had the race been kept a secret, but Calmejane took solo wins in all of them, and on stages where a solo win might not be expected. He is very strong and on a lot of form.
What are their chances? Made worse by the fact that Coquard and Calmejane are their only two cards. Coquard can rightly be called a favourite for Amstel, and a move that Calmejane is in will be more fearsome for his presence, but once Calmejane has attacked, that's all Direct Energie has. Coquard should hope for Amstel to play out like Dwars of 2016. Maybe this time he'll celebrate correctly.
Who's the main man? For Amstel, it's Greg Van Frikkin' Avermaet. After that, who even cares? Samuel Sánchez, I guess.
Who's in Support? Ben Hermans is here, with Dylan Teuns and Loic Vliegen. Then there's Floris Gerts, an excellent young talent. Their team is kind of young, once you get past the leaders, but it's one that can afford to be aggressive.
What are their chances? I was juggling BMC and Lotto-Soudal for this spot, and BMC came out on top because Van Avermaet can probably win Amstel. If there's one guy taking the start in Maastricht on Sunday that can make an attack work (and it will have to be an attack, a sprint will be too much for him) it's the Roubaix champion. Win or not, he'll be out of the team for Flèche and Liège, where Sánchez got top ten finishes last year.
The bottom of this list is so difficult to fill because at the same time there are so many teams with a decent chance of doing well and so few teams with a decent chance of doing well. Lotto-Soudal narrowly miss out because Wellens has never turned up to these races and they've got so little strength in depth, even if they were Benoot's targets all along. I could just as easily count Trek-Segafredo, equipped as they are with Bauke Mollema and Fabio Felline, or Astana, working for Michael Valgren, who of course finished second in Amstel last year. Then there's AG2R with Alexis Vuillermoz, one of the peloton's better puncheurs, and Romain Bardet, whose path to the Tour this year takes him through Liège. All of these teams and people have a chance of doing well, and that's not something I could have said about fourteen teams going into the cobbles. To be honest with you, I'll be surprised if one of this week's races are half as exciting as Gent-Wevelgem, and there's a very good chance Valverde will crush our hopes as he crushes everyone else's but we'll all tune in and see it happening, because there are thirteen teams who can topple him.