Race Preview: The cobbled races have now passed and the road season turns the corner and hits the climbs of the Ardennes Classics. First up is Holland’s only Classic – The Amstel Gold Race. Ed Hood looks at what used to be a sprinters event that is now climb packed finalé of fun from Maastricht, through Southern Limburg, over the Cauberg and finish on the Vilt-Valkenburg.
It wouldn’t be Holland without a windmill
We’re almost done with spring Kasseien for another year – it’s the ‘Ardennes Classics’ phase of the season now with the Amstel, Flèche Wallonne and the fourth Monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The ‘transition’ race which takes us from cobbles to climbs and corners is the Flèche Brabanconne/Brabantse Pijl which takes place on Wednesday, won last year by Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal and Belgium). But the big ‘warm up’ for the Flèche Wallonne and La Doyenne – as Liège-Bastogne-Liège is known – is ‘The Amstel’, The Netherlands only Classic.
Dutch hero and World champion – Five time Amstel winner – Jan Raas
The Amstel Gold Race is a bit of a baby as far as classics go; the Primavera goes back to 1907, Flanders to 1913 and Roubaix to 1896. For The Netherlands biggest bike race it’s a relatively recent 1966; when France’s Jean Stablinski took the honours. This year will be edition 54 of the race that bears the name of Amsterdam’s main river and – of course – the lovely golden beer.
Jean Stablinski, the first Amstel winner – With Anquetil who never won Amstel
Held mainly in the lumpy southern province of Limburg – scene of Phil Gilbert’s World’s triumph in 2012 – the route has been much changed over the years; however some things haven’t changed, like the sinuous ‘ball of string on acid’ nature of the parcours and the proliferation of small climbs – there are 35 this year within the 265.7 kilometres but with the legendary Cauberg no longer the climax as was the case for so long.
Tough climbs and lots of them
The organisers tell us:
“After the start on the ‘Markt’ in Maastricht, the riders will ride three big laps through the Southern Limburg hills, just like the last year, including three climbs of the Cauberg and three passages of the finish line in Vilt-Valkenburg.”
Peter Sagan climbing the Valkenburg
Just like in 2017, when the organisation changed the route, this year only the climbs of the Geulhemmerberg and the Bemelerberg are including in the final lap. So the Cauberg will be avoided in the last kilometres again.
World champion Philippe Gilbert attacking the Cauberg in 2013
In the final lap of 16 kilometres, course director Leo van Vliet made a change in 2018.
“With this change in the final of the Amstel Gold Race we search for more narrow roads to make it harder to control the race for the bunch” according to Van Vliet. After the climb of the Geulhemmerberg the bunch will no longer descend on the wide road of the Rasberg towards Maastricht, but the descent of the Kuitenbergweg that is parallel to the Rasberg towards the district Amby (Maastricht). Once the riders are down the descent, the riders will ride via the Molenweg and the Peutgensweg to cross the Rasberg towards Bemelen. After the climb of the Bemelerberg the riders will not cycle straight on, passing the famous windmill of Wolfshuis, but take a left turn in the village Gasthuis towards Terblijt. In Terblijt the route continues via the Rijnsbergerweg to end up at the Sibberweg again for the last kilometre.
Got that? Me neither, but it’ll become clear as we sit on the sofa and watch it unfold.
Much of the course is urban, with speed bumps, bollards, ramps and lots of road furniture within that scary saw tooth profile. Scotland’s Tour de France star, Robert Millar referred to it as “The Tour of the Roundabouts!”
Robert Millar and Adrie van der Poel – Father won in 1990, Mathieu in 2019?
Back in the 70’s the Classics were the Classics and the same names which you’ll see on the roles of honour in the cobbled classics can be seen at the Amstel – Belgians Verbeeck, Merckx, Maertens and Breton Hinault are all there.
World champion Bernard Hinault in the Amstel Gold race of 1981
As is home boy, Jan Raas, five times winner and ‘record man’ with five wins, including four in a row – ‘The Amstel Gold Raas’, was the joke of the day. But Phil Gil is ‘getting there’ and his 2017 triumph means he’s on four wins and could just maybe make it five in 2019.
Jan Raas – ‘The Amstel Gold Raas’
Davide Rebellin holds the record for starts in the race; 18 with 16 finishes.
Davide Rebellin and (again) Michael Boogerd – 2004
The home Dutch riders used to jealously guard victory on their native tarmac; between 1977 and 1991 they only allowed foreigners to slip them three times – Hinault in ’81, Aussie, Phil Anderson in ’83 and Belgium’s forgotten classics star, Eric Van Lancker in ’89.
Eric van Lancker in 1989
The ‘home boys’ have 17 wins in total the Belgies are on 13 and the I-talans (as Sean Kelly always calls them) seven. However, perhaps it’s the ‘Mondialisation’ of pro cycling but there hasn’t been a home winner since Erik Dekker in 2001 and Michael Boogerd in 1999 – but ‘Boogie’ did pack in another four second places and two thirds into the next decade.
Amstel’07 – Michael Boogerd and Paolo bettini
As well as the demise of the home winner, the race has become increasingly the province of the specialist climbers and powerful, acrobatic riders who can survive the succession of short, steep rises which infest the parcours. Notably the savage Cauberg ramp, just over the top of which the race used to conclude the race; if you can’t ‘power climb,’ you can’t win, it’s that simple.
Jan Raas, Gilbert Duclos Lasalle, Sean Kelly and Bernard Hinault attack the Cauberg in the Amstel Gold Race 1980
It’s a much more difficult race to pick a winner in than the Primavera, Ronde or Roubaix – few would have picked Ivanov or Kreuziger as potential winners in recent years. We’re lacking one wee piece of the form puzzle for the race – the result of the Brabantse Pijl, run off before we went to press; Tim Wellens won it last year.
2018 Amstel highlights
But without further ado, here’s our Terrific Ten for Sunday. We can do worse than start with the last 10 winners:
# Michael Valgreen (Dimension Data and Denmark) 2018: it’s not been a startling spring for the man who won this and Het Nieuwsblad, last year – was Dimension Data a good choice ?
But he likes this race, he was second in 2016 so. . .
2018 winner – Michael Valgren
# Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck – Quick-Step and Belgium) 2017/14/11/10: You saw Paris-Roubaix as well as I did – there’s plenty of life in the Old Phil yet.
Don’t be surprised if he makes it five.
2017 winner and three other years Philippe Gilbert
# Enrico Gasparotto (Dimension Data and Italy) 2016/12: Too old at 37 year-of-age? As with Valgreen, his spring hasn’t been great but remember that he was third last year and will be another year foxier.
Amstel’16 Enrico Gasparotto
# Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky and Poland) 2015: on the podiums for The Race to the Sun and The Primavera – ‘nuff said.
Michal Kwiatkowski in 2015
# Roman Kreuziger (Dimension Data and Czech) 2013: yes, that’s right, Dimension Data have all of the 2018 podium finishers on the squad – he was second, last year. He loves this race and on his day is class.
Roman Kreuziger – 2013 winner
Sergei Ivanov won in 2009 but as far as we know, he’s not looking for a team so he can, ‘do a Tafi’.
2009 winner Sergei Ivanov will not be in Holland in 2019
The other likely lads look like this to us:
# Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step and France): he’s been winning since San Juan via the Strade Bianche and Primavera; we need say no more.
On the attack in Sanremo
# Alfredo Bettiol (EF Education First and Italy): You saw de Ronde, right? The boy can get up them ramps – but there are 35 of them. . .
De Ronde winner
# Jacob Fuglsang (Astana and Denmark): strong from day one when he won the mountains in Murcia right up to the recent Basque Country where he should have been on the final podium – and his team is STRONG.
Tough battle in Strade Bianche
# Michael Matthews (Sunweb and Australia): two stages in Catalunya and sixth in de Ronde, sounds like a man with good legs to us.
Flanders was hard
# Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe and Slovakia): don’t scoff, in the ‘old days’ they used to say that after you’ve recovered from the, ‘biggest bonk of your life’ the form will come – so if you saw the finale of Roubaix. . .
Not at 100%
# Max Schachmann (Bora-hansgrohe and Germany): and if you saw Max’s stage wins in Catalunya and Basque Country then you’ll know there’s more to Bora these days than aforementioned ex-triple World Champion.
The German has been racing well recently
# Alejandro Valverde (Movistar and Spain): for a man who’s won NINE Ardennes classics, it’s surprising he’s never won here, albeit his stats are: 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th. Maybe that lovely jersey will make the difference this year?
Amstel win for the World champion?
# Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma and Belgium): Gilbert apart, this young gentleman was ‘man of the match’ on the road to Roubaix. His class was never in doubt but that was pure grinta on Sunday.
Some luck would be nice
# Mathieu Van Der Poel (Corendon-Circus and The Netherlands): The Netherlands expects. . . Can he be the first Dutch renner to win since Erik Dekker in 2001? We say, ‘Yes’.
Dutch champion to win in Holland?
# Beer of the day – think about it . . . If you want the live action go to SteephillTV, and of course the best reports and photos will be here on PEZ. #
Amstel 2019 trailer
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.