Now that the cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix are over, we’re treated to the first of the three Ardennes Classics. Oddly, Amstel Gold doesn’t take part in the Ardennes at all, but in the Dutch region of Limburg. With similar hilly, rolling terrain, it deserves its place along with Fleche and Liege.
Firstly, before I go onto Amstel in more depth, I’d like to a raise a few points about Roubaix.
What. A. Race.
Unfortunately I had to try to watch the race while on a couple of train journeys, switching between watching on SkyGo and following on Twitter (as I’d stupidly forgotten to charge my phone before I left). However, I made it make to the flat just in time to get the action end of the race. To me the race seemed to be marred and shaped by crashes.
- Big crash #1 causes the split in the peloton with around 100-odd Km to go. Sagan and Cancellara caught behind. Etixx, Sky and Jumbo with numbers ahead of the split push on.
- Small crashes #2 and #3 wipe out Team Sky’s presence in the front group. Taking down one of my ante-post bets in the shape of Luke Rowe. He digs deep to get back but that was the race over for him then, devoting himself to work for Stannard.
- Then the Cancellara crash occurs not long after, taking out Sagan’s only ally from the race which effectively put an end to his bid for glory then.
So after all that I was left with my least fancied rider (EBH) up front. Vanmarcke put in two strong attacks over the last sections of cobbles but was brought back. Everyone left in the front group attacked at some point, but were all brought to heel. And the most unlikely of winners Matty Hayman sprinted to victory in the Velodrome, denying Boonen the record-breaking win. EBH finished 5th, but in a situation where you only get money back for coming top 3, he may as well have come last.
Hopefully you listened to me and kept your money in your pocket!
I personally believe that if he hadn’t gone down, then Rowe would have won that race. There might be a hint of bias because of me backing him at 125/1, but he looked very strong up to that point, effortlessly moving up the pack before each cobbled section. I guess the same could be said for Sagan and Cancellara being held up very early on and having to play catch up for a large portion of the race. But hey, that’s cycling! Anyway, onto Amstel…
The race route remains largely unchanged from previous years, since the addition of the extra 1.8km after the final ascent of the Cauberg was added in 2013, using an almost identical route to 2015’s edition. Credit to the guys at CyclingStage for the route profile.
As you can see the race is up and down all day, with very little flat roads for the riders to get some respite. This will wear the riders down, slowly sapping the legs. The main climb is the Cauberg which is crested 4 times throughout and is the focal point of the race. Either being used as an early launchpad for an attack before the final lap (Kreuziger pulled off a winning move here in 2013) or a small bunch arriving at the bottom and going full gas up the final ascent.
The extra 1km or so on the end of the climb makes the race tactically different compared to the editions before 2013. It used to just be a slog all the way to the top, but now if a couple of guys get over together, then an unwillingness to work together can bring those who lost a few metres up the climb back into contention. This is exactly what happened at last years edition with Gilbert and Matthews cresting together, only for Valverde to tag along and do his usual sandbagging routine. Allowing a large group to reform and sprint to the line. However, it is possible for one rider to solo off the front at the top of the climb and make it all the way to the finish. Gilbert managed this not only in the 2014 edition, but also at the World Championships in 2012 which was held on a very similar course.
In terms of a spectacle, I have to be honest and say this race isn’t usually the best. More often than not it comes down to the final kick up the Cauberg. So if you’re busy in the afternoon, I wouldn’t fret as long as you can make it back for about 25km to go. De Brabantse Pijl which happened on Wednesday and is viewed as a warm up for this race, is and was much more exciting. Hopefully, I’m forced to eat my words come Sunday and someone tries to light it up from far out, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.
One thing that could make it more entertaining is the possibility of rain on Sunday. Going off AccuWeather, the current forecast gives it around a 50% chance of rain. Although I’ve seen other places who say there’s a less of a chance.
The rain could potentially make some of the descents more treacherous, so some gaps could form there. Plus, some riders are more adaptable to poor weather so they could gain an advantage in that sense, normally the Belgians and Dutch revel in it.
Anyway, onto the favourites to clinch the title.
If you’ve been paying any attention to what I’ve written above then there is one name that keeps re-appearing: Gilbert, he is Mr Cauberg so to say. The climb is tailor-made for his explosive nature and not many in the world can match him up it when he’s on a good day. Previously, he’d go into this race as outright favourite. But with the emergence of cycling sensation Michael Matthews and an altercation with a drunken motorist, resulting in a broken finger, he comes in as joint 3rd favourite (along with Matthews team-“mate” Simon Gerrans). He promises that he’s in good shape and that he’s recovered fully from the altercation. I would not be surprised if he goes onto win but that niggle of a broken finger puts me off him slightly. However, he has shown good form recently, finishing 3rd in Volta Limburg at the start of the month and his results have been solid (not outstanding) from the rest of the early season. I am very close to backing him, but will need another day or so to come to that decision, I just can’t make up my mind. It’ll most likely be a no, but out of the top 4 favourites he is the one I’d go for. The 10/1 available at Ladbrokes is very tempting!
Orica come in with a two-pronged attack in the shape of Matthews and Gerrans. It’s safe to say these guys aren’t the best of friends. Gerrans was meant to lead Matthews out at the World’s but didn’t and they’ve been a bit frosty since then. Matthews even tweeted, congratulating Luis Leon Sanchez on his win at the first stage of Pais Vasco. A stage in which Gerrans won the bunch kick behind the escapees. I’m very interested to see the race team dynamic on Sunday with them being co-leaders. Matthews on paper should win this race, but races aren’t won on paper and I don’t think he’ll win it this year. There are too many things that could go against him. No one will want to bring him to the finish line for a sprint, so he’ll need to drop everyone. Yes, he looked strong in Brabantse having to close down attacks himself and will benefit from the race being kept together by others. I would love for him to win as I have him in my fantasy team but I’m not having it. Personally, I think Gerrans is over the hill (terrible pun intended) in these types of races and I wouldn’t be backing him at the 7/1 that’s available out there either.
The bookies have Kwiatkowski instilled as second favourite. But again, I wouldn’t be backing him at that price. He hasn’t raced since his implosion at Flanders so it’s very hard to gauge how he’s going. Yes, he won last year, but he had a different route into Amstel. Taking part in Pais Vasco and performing well there. I think his big aim for the Ardennes Classics will come the following Sunday at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, not here. Therefore,
Below the top 4 the market and race is quite open, with several riders being priced between 20/1 up to around 66/1.
Cases can be made for several of these riders. Vakoc won Brabantse on Wednesday and is clearly in form. In that race, both Wellens and Alaphillippe were strong and attacking, especially the latter. Gasparotto managed to take second place as well, so he has a good chance. Gallopin was an unconvincing third, but having a blow-out on Wednesday could dust off the cobwebs and he too could be in contention come Sunday. Coquard won the bunch gallop for 4th, but I think this race will be too much for him.
Those not competing on Wednesday must not be ruled out too! One of the riders that I think has a very good chance for this race is Rui Costa. He was climbing as well as I’d ever seen him during Pais Vasco, finishing 7th on GC and 6th on the final mountain TT (even with a mechanical), a discipline he’s not normally that good at. He was 4th in this race last year, and I’m convinced he can get himself onto the podium this year and has a good chance of winning. If it does rain too, he is a rider that can cope very well. His World Championship win in 2013 proves that. I have money on him at 40/1, but reinvested at the 22/1 available at SkyBet that can be seen above. That 22/1 is now gone, sorry!
Henao put in a dominant display at Pais Vasco but I think the Cauberg is too easy for him and his main focus will be Fleche where he should go in as one of the top 5 favourites. Instead, a left-field pick from Sky would be Ben Swift. Some of you will laugh at that, but I think he has the attributes. His climbing has improved massively this year but he will need there to be some regrouping as I don’t think he’ll make it up in the front 5-10 riders at the crest of the Cauberg. The only thing that puts me off him is that he’s not a winner. He always seems to come top 3 but nothing better.
A rider of similar ilk to Matthews and Swift is Movistar’s JJ Lobato. I managed to snap him up at 300/1 when the prices initially came out at Bet365, but he’s now into 80/1 with them after a win at the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe just over a week ago. I’m not too sure if I’d back him at that price, but without Valverde, I expect him to be co-leader along with Dani Moreno or possibly Gorka Izagirre/Visconti. He’s one to watch, but not put money on.
A few fun names I’d like to throw around at long odds are as follows:
- Maurits Lammertink at 250/1 with Bet365. The 25 year-old who rides for Roompot has put in a few solid performances recently. Finishing 7th at Brabantse on Wednesday and a couple of top 10s at Sarthe the week before. Furthermore, he finished 21st in this race last year (finishing in the second group along with riders such as Wellens and Felline, who are much shorter price wise for this edition). A year older and stronger, I think he has a reasonable chance (although small compared to the favourites) Whether that be by going long, or if people just watch him if there’s a regrouping and he attacks, because he won’t be rated as highly/marked.
- Sep Vanmarcke at 250/1 with Various bookmakers. Very unfortunate not to have won a semi-classic or classic this year so far and has had a lighter race schedule. He’s not too bad (very underrated IMO) on the short steep climbs (see Flanders or his performance at Strade in 2014) and has been very strong in every race he’s entered. He’s unlikely to win, hence he’s that price, but you never know. One thing that’s certain, is I’m sure we’ll get an attack from him at some point.
- Arthur Vichot at 300/1 with B365 or Coral. The Frenchman was flying at the start of the season but has gone off the boil a bit recently. However, he got some good miles in at Pais Vasco and he’ll be FDJ’s leader here. Another rider who won’t be as heavily marked but can climb well and has a solid sprint on him.
Overall though, I’m going to stick my neck out (didn’t go well for PR but oh well) and say that Rui Costa will win this race. He has all the attributes to deliver a big result and has a proven track record in the past with performances such as his 4th last year. As I said above, he’s climbing better than ever before and has a good sprint after a tough day. Plus, if it rains I think that plays into his hands even more, he loves the bad weather! Hopefully we’ll get a scene like this one come Sunday.
Costa is my main bet, and he should be yours too 😉 In the interest of fairness and honesty, I’ve covered my back and put a couple of quid on the 3 riders I mentioned above. Would hate for them to go and do well and I’ve talked them up here! Nothing wild though and I’d recommend the same for you.
Thanks once again for everyone who’s gotten this far, hope you enjoy the race on Sunday and enjoy a few bottles of Amstel along with it! Any feedback, positive or negative is once again very much appreciated. Anyway,
Those were My Two Spokes Worth.