PEZ Previews: Amstel Gold Race
The Amstel Gold Race is on this Sunday around the hills and traffic furniture laden streets of Holland’s Limburg province and it’s a brutal race of attrition defined by more than 30 hills. With more twists and turns than a good detective novel the winner is often decided only in the closing kilometers. Ed Hood takes a look at the course and contenders for 2014.
In Italy the Classics have beautiful names; the ‘Primavera’ and ‘Classic of the Falling Leaves’ – in France they simply name them after places, Tours, Paris, Roubaix – in Belgium it’s newspapers and road numbers, Het Nieuwsblad and E3.
But in Holland, it’s beer – you have to respect that.
“Amstel Gold is a luxury beer with a pronounced taste, owing to a special mixture of barley malt, says the Amstel advertising blurb.
And Amstel’s head brewer continues:
“This is a luxury beer for special occasions. Introduced in 1956, Amstel Gold is brewed from a special mixture of barley malt, resulting in a sturdy, full-flavoured beer. With a definite taste of fruit and hops and an alcohol content of 7%, this belongs to the category of special beers. Amstel Gold is only available in the Netherlands.”
Just a pity about that last sentence . . .
This Amber potion gives it’s name to one of the youngest and trickiest of all the Classics – it used to be the last of the Spring Classics but declining interest in the race lead to a re-jig of the calendar and now it’s the opener of the three ‘Ardennes’ races.
The race was first held in 1966 when Polish miner turned French hard man and World Pro Road Race Champion, Jean Stablinski won. Since then some of the greatest names in the sport have triumphed in The Netherland’s only Classic – Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Bernard Hinault and Johan Museeuw all have it in their palmares. But the record man for the event and who managed to get it named after him, rather than the other way round – the ‘Amstel Gold Raas’ – was Dutchman Jan Raas.
The wily man from Heinkenszand won five times between 1977 and 1982; with the locals continuing to dominate the race through the 80’s with Hanegraaf, Knetemann, Rooks, Zoetemelk, Nijdam, Van Der Poel and Maasen all topping the podium.
But despite dominating the palmares with 17 wins off 48 events, the last Dutch winner was Erik Dekker in 2001 and unless there’s a surprise this Sunday then it will be at least another year before his feat is equalled – but more of that in a moment.
The race has also attracted more than its fair share of ‘interesting’ winners in recent years – Riis, Zabel, Vinokourov, Rebellin, Di Luca, Frank Schleck and Schumacher. Maybe it was that 7% alcohol content in the Amstel Gold which affected their testosterone levels and . .
It hasn’t been a kind race to the ‘Anglos’ and despite the large number of English speaking riders in the peloton and the BMC, Trek, Garmin, Sky and GreenEdge presence, it’s 31 years since the man with best smile in pro cycling – Australia’s Phil Anderson had the Southern Cross flying over Limburg.
In recent years race distance has settled around the 250/260 kilometre mark – Stablinski had to ride 300 to win in ’66 – but there’s a hill for every eight kilometres of racing, some 31 in all.
This rules out the big men – except the real silver backs like Merckx and Ludwig – and plays into the hands of the compact and powerful or tall and skinny; of the last ten winners Enrico Gasparotto, Philippe Gilbert, Sergei Ivanov, Damiano Cunego, Stefan Schumacher, Danilo Di Luca fall into the former category with Frank Schleck in 2006 and Roman Kreuziger last year upholding the honour of those whose bikes have a head tube and who’s waist size makes you sick.
But the smaller guys have to be forceful riders too – at the lead in to every one of those 31 hills there will be a street brawl for position and shrinking violets need not apply.
And did we say that you have to be able to win an uphill sprint because it finishes atop the horrible Cauberg? The finale of the 2012 Worlds ‘enjoyed’ the same final climb.
As well as assaulting the contour lines on the map the route is perhaps the most complicated of all the Classics, winding around the Limburg region of the Netherlands like a demented ball of string unravelling. Unusually for a Classic there’s a huge urban element to the race with all of the hazards that brings; speed bumps, traffic islands, bollards, signs, chicanes – Robert Millar used to call it the ‘Tour of the roundabouts.’
OK, OK, I know, enough of that 70’s/80’s stuff – who’s gonna win?
In the first four Classics of the season, Milan-Sanremo, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix we’ve only missed naming one podium finisher in our previews. And we were very pleased to do so – it was a delight to see Ben Swift (Sky & GB) on the podium in the ‘City of Flowers.’ That fact is that these races are so specialised that only riders with certain characteristics will dominate.
There are many more wiry and/or tall and skinny ‘all rounders’ in the peloton than there are freight trains like Boonen, Cancellara and Kristoff.
Just for a change we’ll nominate one favourite per nation.
Spain: Super favourite for us is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) he dominated the Ruta Del Sol with three stage wins and the GC; he won in Murcia, Lazio (‘Roma Maxima?’ Come on!) and the GP Indurain – he was even attacking on the cobbles of Dwars Door and the E3. He’ll be right there come late afternoon, Sunday – and did we say he was second here last year? There is a ‘but’ however, those pesky stats – no Spaniard has ever won this race . . .
Catalonia: What do you mean that’s cheating? – tell someone from Barcelona they’re Spanish. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was an ‘also ran’ in San Luis, fourth in Oman and won the Volta a Catalunya – that’s called ‘progression.’ With the poker faced, hard as iron Katusha Cossacks behind him, he could well join Valverde on the podium.
Portugal: Let’s stick with the Iberian Peninsula – World Champion Rui Costa (Lampre) is looking good in white; no wins but he’s been racking up the second places and this parcours is right up his street. Perhaps a podium but top ten for sure – the Amstel soaked, barrier-hanging hordes will expect nothing less from the main in the rainbow jersey.
France: Whilst Jean Stablinski won the first Amstel Gold it took until 1981 and Bernard Hinault at the height of his powers to become the next French winner. Since then – nada, those stats don’t lie . . .
Those AG2R boys have been rampant this year and we like how Romain Bardet has been riding thus far in 2014, with a nice win in the Drome Classic and good legs in Catalunya – no podium but those brown shorts will be displayed on your TV screen come Sunday.
Belgium: Let’s forget the World Tour for a moment and go down a division to Pro Continental and the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team wherein resides Bjorn Leuekemans. He was top ten in Flanders and top 20 in Roubaix last weekend – but the parcours here are more to his taste; last season he was third in the Amstel ‘warm up’ Brabantse Pijl and seventh at the top of the Cauberg. Like a Belgian Luca Paolini, at 36 he just gets harder and stronger – he won’t be far away.
Great Britain: We’ve already mentioned Ben Swift (Sky) we know that the distance is no problem – witness the Primavera; and in the Pais Vasco he proved he could survive the hills – beating aforementioned super favourite Alejandro Valverde and QuickStep’s Polish Champion, Michal Kwiatkowski to take stage five of the tough Basque (don’t call it Spanish!) stage race. A top ten is well possible.
The Netherlands: Let’s look to the ‘Baskenland’ again for the home nation’s best chance; stage four of that event saw QuickStep’s Wout Poels win and prove that his strong Strade Bianche was no fluke. Poels’ aggressive style is ideal for these parcours – the only caveat is that he may have to sacrifice his own chances in support of team mate Kwiatkowski.
Italy: He’s won here before and there are green shoots of form from Lugano, the Strade Bianche and Pais Vasco – is the man who once made the the Tour of Lombardy his own, on the way back? Lampre need a result, he won’t win but will be well there – Damiano Cunego should be top ten.
Poland: The nation that gave us Ryszard Szurkowski and Stanislaw Szozda (Google them) has mined another gem from it’s famous Silesian coal seams in the shape of Michal Kwiatkowski. He won early in Majorca, took two stages and the GC in the Algarve, beat Sagan to win the Strade Bianche, was strong in Tirreno and it took Contador to stop him winning the Pais Vasco GC – he’s ready.
Czech Republic: Staying on the Eastern side of Europe, Alberto Contador’s henchman number one at Tinkoff, Roman Kreuziger won here last year. He was third on GC in Tirreno, strong in the Pais Vasco and gets to ride on the wheel here.
Australia: The year started with a flourish for GreenEdge; the Aussie road and TT titles, the Tour Down Under and The Herald Sun Tour all went their way. But the takings have been sparse in Europe, thus far – National Champion, Simon Gerrans may remedy that on Sunday, he was on the podium here last year and the word is that his form is kicking in just right.
Colombia: AG2R’s Carlos Betancur dominated Haut Var and Paris-Nice but didn’t finish in Catalunya or the Pais Vasco. With big hair and thighs to match, he has a reputation for being brilliant or mediocre with nothing in between; we’ll see which it is on Sunday.
For all of that pontificating there may well be names on the podium who’ll have us saying; ‘I never thought for a moment . . .
You know the drill; the beer has to be Amstel – sadly, not Gold, though – you’ll need a start sheet, objects to throw at the TV for when the commentary gets just too inane and most importantly – PEZ.
We’re on the patch to bring you the best in race reportage and roadside coverage – as Cipo might say; ‘de bezt website, eh?’
• And look for live web-tv coverage at Steephill.tv