Ardennes specialists return to Classics racing
To the confusion of cycling novices, and irritation of sticklers for correct geography, the Amstel Gold Race continues to be known as the first of the three Ardennes Classics. What that label lacks in geographical accuracy though it makes up for in sporting sense, as these three races go great together as a trilogy, each one rewarding similar attributes, but distinct enough to pose its own unique test.
The main thing that binds them together are their numerous hills and their total absence of cobblestones, and consequently this week of racing attracts a different kind of rider than those who have battled it on the Flemish pavé throughout the rest of the spring. While many of the cobbled specialists have ended their spring campaign, for other puncheurs, who have so far concentrated on stage races, theirs is just about to begin.
Given his form in the Ardennes last year, when he won Flèche Wallonne and came second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Marc Hirschi’s (UAE Team Emirates) return will be the most anticipated, but his quiet rides at Volta a Catalunya and the Tour of the Basque Country indicate he may not have ridden into form quickly enough to be a top contender for Amstel Gold.
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be more optimistic, having won Paris-Nice last month, and will be hoping to carry that form into the Ardennes Classics, races that might suit him better than any other on the calendar.
And then there’s veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech), both of whom look likely to still be top contenders at the age of 40 and 36 respectively. Against the odds, Valverde appears to be back to something like his best, and therefore a genuine candidate to win a race that has always eluded him; Fuglsang hasn’t been in such great form, but has in recent years been the star of the hilly classics.
Well-balanced route attracts class variety of Classics specialists
Although the 2021 Amstel Gold has, unlike last year’s edition, been cleared to go ahead, Covid-19 concerns mean that it has been redesigned as a 17km circuit tackled 13 times by the men, featuring the Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg, and Bemelerberg.
Despite the changes, the ending remains the same as it has since 2017, with the Cauberg again being the third-to-last climb, rather than its traditional position at the last climb.
This ending has proved to be an inspired innovation, as it managed to both help produce thrilling racing (most memorably the 2019 edition that saw Mathieu van der Poel win in such unlikely circumstances), while also encouraging other Classics specialists who had previously been turned off by the race’s former uphill finish to add it to their calendar.
As a result, several of the riders who have featured in the cobbled Classics throughout the spring will again be on the start list on Sunday, for one last race before bringing their spring classics campaign to an end.
Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën), Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation), and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) will all be hoping to make the most of their last chance to win a Classic this spring, having all come close in previous races; after looking strong and finishing third at Brabantse Pijl on Sunday, Trentin may be the most confident.
Then there are those especially ambitious riders who intend to follow up the cobbled Classics by riding all three of the Ardennes Classics.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) is one, and clearly still has great form following victory at Brabantse Pijl; Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) both limited their appearances in the Flemish Classics in order to ensure they still have form for this week, and we ought to start seeing the best of Julian Alaphilippe now he becomes Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s undisputed chief rider in his favourite kind of terrain.
Van Aert and Roglič team up for Jumbo-Visma
Wout van Aert has been among the main protagonists in virtually all of the major Classics this spring, but he may feel he needs at least one more win to really make his campaign an unqualified success.
Sixth at the Tour of Flanders, fourth at Strade Bianche, third at Milan-San Remo, and second on Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl all testify to his remarkable consistency, but so far Ghent-Wevelgem remains his only one day win of the season, which feels like a low return for someone with the form he’s in.
Amstel Gold will be his last chance to add a second victory before he takes some well-earned time off from racing, and it’s a Classic that should suit him just about as well as any other.
He’ll be boosted by the presence of Jumbo-Visma team-mate Primož Roglič, who ride together for the first time this season to form one of the peloton’s most formidable duos. Given his own superb form at the Tour of the Basque Country, Roglič is himself a potential winner, but may feel obliged to repay a team-mate who did such sterling work in his service at the Tour de France last year.
The following Ardennes Classic may be where the Slovenian takes over leadership duties, but at Amstel Gold his assistance might be all it takes for Van Aert to upgrade from another near miss to claiming victory.
Dutch legends hoping for home win
Whereas the women’s Ardennes Classics used to comprise only of La Flèche Wallonne, ever since Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were added to the calendar in 2017, it’s become one of the most prestigious and important weeks of the season.
As the biggest race based in the Netherlands, Amstel Gold means a lot to the peloton’s large contingent of quality Dutch riders — and two home riders in particular will be desperate to add it to their illustrious palmarès before retiring.
Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) has a more complete palmarès than any woman in history, but Amstel Gold remains missing from it. She came close in 2019, winning the sprint for third behind Kasia Niewiadoma and Annemiek van Vleuten, but if she’s to win she may need to launch her own attack rather than rely on her finishing sprint, even if that tactic has recently brought her much success in less selective parcours.
Her compatriot Van Vleuten (Movistar) lost the sprint to Niewiadoma that day in 2019, in what was her second near-miss after making the key selection in 2017. The 38-year-old is the in-form rider right now in the women’s peloton, however, having won Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders back-to-back, and will therefore be the rider to beat on Sunday.
Although the need for social distancing means that local fans will not be able to flock to the Cauberg to cheer them on, a victory for either would still mean a lot for Dutch cycling fans.
An open women’s race with several potential winners
This year’s Women’s WorldTour has so far been an open affair without a single rider or team dominating; all five races so far have been won by five different riders from five different teams.
Nevertheless, SD Worx will be difficult to beat on Sunday. In Anna van der Breggen and Chantel van den Broek-Blaak they boast two of the previous three winners of the Amstel Gold, while Demi Vollering has come into form these past few weeks and provides a formidable third option.
The race’s defending champion, however, belongs to Canyon-SRAM, whose leader Kasia Nieuwiadoma launched an explosive attack on the Cauberg in 2019 to seal what remains one of the biggest results of her career. She has since lacked that same killer instinct, adding just one more win to her palmarès in the two years since, but may rediscover it in a race she is so well suited to.
As ever, Trek-Segafredo have strength in numbers, with the usual duo of Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizzie Deignan being boosted by the coming into form of American champion Ruth Winder, who edged Demi Vollering in a photo finish at Brabantse Pijl.
But it might be BikeExchange who emerge as the team to most trouble SD Worx. Grace Brown has already enjoyed a fantastic spring, claiming an unlikely victory from a surprise attack at the Classic Brugge-De Panne as well as claiming a podium spot at the Tour of Flanders, and is well-suited to the Ardennes Classics. Along with team-mate Amanda Spratt, she’ll be difficult to contain on such a hilly route.