Amstel Gold Race’18: 24-Karat Valgren!
Race Report: Astana’s Michael Valgren won the Amstel Gold Race after 260 kilometers of gruelling action in the hills of Holland. The Dane, already a victor in this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, benefited from his team’s numerical superiority in the finale and from the mutually paralyzing tactics of race favorites Peter Sagan, Alejandro Valverde and Julian Alaphilippe.
The first of the ‘Ardennes Classics’, the Amstel Gold Race promised rich entertainment, as champions of every kind, attracted by its unpredictable nature, prepared to do battle over the hills of Holland, the signatures of Paris-Roubaix winner Peter Sagan, Milan-San Remo maestro Vincenzo Nibali, Tour de France top ten finisher Dan Martin and sprinting sensation Bryan Coquard cohabitating in glorious incongruity on the starting sheet.
A peppery parcours featuring no less than 35 climbs had been conjured by race organizer Leo Van Vliet to test their mettle, and such was its mind-boggling proliferation of rises and descents that traditional maps or altitudinal graphics had been abandoned in favor of a long, plain text list of bergs to be crested, which most riders had taped to the stems of their bikes.
The race’s departure in Maastricht was preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of Michael Goolaerts, the young Belgian rider who passed away after suffering from cardiac arrest on the roads of Paris-Roubaix. Then, at half past ten in the morning, nearly two hundred contestants mounted their machines and began pedaling, rolling out of the city’s market square amidst Batavian bawls announcing the price for a pound of potatoes.
The cost of climbing up the Cauberg not once but thrice had yet to be determined, however, and athletes pinged off the front of the peloton in the early going, fancying their chances of making a mark on the race.
“After one kilometer, a minuscule rider with a black rag-mop attacks”, Dutch writer and keen cyclist Tim Krabbé once remarked in his celebrated novella The Rider. “Despuech. Baloney. This race lasts 140 kilometers. Despuech is crazy. Despuech is only showing us that he doesn’t stand a chance in hell. He knows it too, but still it’s a fact: he has to choose between finishing at the back after shining, or finishing at the back after not having shone at all. Dozens of riders are now thinking the word ‘Despuech’, and people along the route will clap for him. And later all the riders will slide right over him, like a net over an undersized fish.”
The names running through everyone’s mind today were those of Bram Tankink (Lotto NL-Jumbo), Tsabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Bono (UAE Team Emirates), Lawson Craddock (EF-Drapac), Oscar Riesebeek (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Edward Dunbar (Aqua Blue Sport), Marco Tizza (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Willem Smit (Katusha-Alpecin), and Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
By the time these not-so-undersized fish had gathered a lead of a quarter hour over the peloton, 80 kilometers into the race, alarm bells started to ring and Sagan’s Bora boys began chasing, soon supported by Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar men.
The real battle at this point, though, as the colorful cortege swept through the picturesque Limburg province, was raging between the race photographers, competing against one another from the pillion of their respective motorcycles for the best shot of a giant Dutch windmill.
Gradually, the Amstel Gold Race took its toll, as one berg succeeded another, some urban and crowded like the Cauberg, packed with joyful masses of spectators, with pints of frothing beer in every hand, others, such as the Loorberg, rural and all but deserted. Roundabouts became more frequent than straight stretches of road and constant vigilance was needed to manage the omnipresent speed bumps, bollards, chicanes, pavements, and other pieces of road furniture.
Those hoping for a first Dutch victory since Erik Dekker in 2001 looked on in despair as national champion Ramon Sinkeldam faded from contention during the second ascent of the Cauberg, 80 kilometers from the finish in Valkenburg, and De Ronde Van Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra rode at the back of the pack, showing signs of fatigue after a busy cobbles season.
With 70 kilometers remaining, the front shoal’s advantage stood at no more than 6 minutes. Progressing through the comely spring scenery, sweat began to pearl on their brows and their pedal strokes became less smooth. After nearly 200 kilometers in the lead, their eventual capture now looked all but inevitable, and twenty kilometers farther down the road the time gap had halved. But young Irishman Dunbar valiantly fought on, leading the way over berg after berg and dropping the likes of Smit and Tankink.
At the foot of the Kruisberg, within 40 kilometers of the finish line, Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran took a tumble. On the harsh ramps of the Eyserbosweg, Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic, a former winner of the Amstel Gold Race, accelerated to string out the bunch, and France’s Rudy Molard then pulled the trigger at the approach of the windswept summit of the Fromberg. Spain’s Ion Izagirre also tried his luck but was rapidly caught during the steep ascent of the Keutenberg. Sagan himself threw his hat in the ring, shadowed by his great rival Greg Van Avermaet, but to no avail.
As the third and final climb up the Cauberg loomed on the horizon, Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott) and Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida), another former victor of the Dutch Classic, escaped and bridged over to the six survivors of the early break-away.
Twenty kilometers from the good, a mechanical problem put paid to the hopes of a hitherto confident-looking Michael Matthews.
Floris De Tier, Julian Alaphillipe, Jakob Fuglsang and Olympic champion Van Avermaet all attacked on the Cauberg, but it was Valverde’s initiative on the Geulhemmerberg, fatal to Nibali and Van Avermaet, that truly whittled down the group of favorites, which in the thick of the fireworks had absorbed the tête de la course.
In the Bemelerberg, the last climb of the day, Oscar Riesebeek showed his cheek by launching an unexpected attack, but the resulting conflagration left all of the survivors of the échappée matinale in the doldrums, as eight strong men rose to the fore.
Tim Wellens, Michael Valgren, Jakob Fuglsang, Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, Alejandro Valverde, Roman Kreuziger and Enrico Gasparotto stared one another down as the red kite came into sight.
In fine form and sensing victory, Valgren bolted forward while fellow Dane and Astana team-mate Fuglsang shut the door behind him. The favorites neutralizing one another, only Kreuziger could hold on to the blond bruiser’s wheel and the two of them shot off into the distance.
Gasparotto, in the flamboyant red of Bahrain-Merida, endeavored to reel them in but it was too little too late for the feisty little Italian, and on the home straight Valgren powered ahead of his Czech rival to score a fabulous victory, one he can add to this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. After thirty-five bergs, the boyish Dane could drink heartily to his success, the choice of brew a foregone conclusion.
Amstel Gold Race Result:
1. Michael Valgren (Den) Astana in 6:40:07
2. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Mitchelton-Scott
3. Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Bahrain-Merida at 0:02
4. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:19
5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar
6. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal
7. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors
8. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana at 0:23
9. Lawson Craddock (USA) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale at 0:30
10. Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 0:36
11. Daryl Impey (RSA) Mitchelton-Scott at 0:53
12. Preben Van Hecke (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise
13. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
14. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC
15. Rudy Molard (Fra) Groupama-FDJ
16. Floris De Tier (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo
17. Matteo Bono (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
18. Sergio Henao (Col) Sky
19. Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida
20. Michael Woods (Can) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale
21. Oscar Riesebeek (Ned) Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij at 0:56
22. Gorka Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida at 1:19
23. Tsgabu Grmay (Eth) Trek-Segafredo at 1:51
24. Michael Matthews (Aus) Sunweb at 2:11
25. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC.