The week of Ardennes classics gets underway on Sunday (April 20) with the Amstel Gold Race.
Despite taking place in the Netherlands rather than the Ardennes, the Amstel Gold is classified as such in order to be grouped together with Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne and the following Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which are all generally contested by the same riders.
Whereas the northern classics were contested by the larger, stronger riders of the peloton, the Ardennes will see punchier rides with come to the fore. Characterised by a relentless number of short, steep climbs and unusually featuring an uphill sprint finish, winners here usually possess an ability to get over the climbs, remain strong over long distances, and posses a quick finish.
The 2013 Amstel Gold strayed slightly from this formula by moving the finish line to a kilometre or so after the Cauberg, the iconic climb the race formerly finished at (and climbs two more times beforehand). Subsequently the race did not culminate in the usual mass sprint, but by a Roman Kreuziger lone attack.
This slight adjustment has struck a fine balance between different sets of riders capable of winning.
On one hand there are those with quick sprint finishes who will try to prevent breaks from escaping and surviving, and ensure they contest a sprint at the end. Among those included in this category are Britain’s Ben Swift (Sky), who has looked brilliant of late both in his sprinting and ability to survive the climbs, and on-form rising star Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), whose talented is so diverse he could conceivably win in a sprint or an attack. Then there are riders who will look to make a race winning attack on the final accent of the Cauberg. Even in his recent lean years, two-time winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) always performs well on this climb, which he crested in second place last year and won the world championships on in 2012. His win this week at the Brabantse Pijl hinted at a return to form, and the Belgian must be considered a favourite once more.
Expect to see the Spanish duo of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) attack on the Cauberg too, while Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) have consistently displayed an affinity for this climb. If Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) can recover from recent fitness issues, he also will be a threat. Finally, there are many who will fancy their chances of replicating Kreuziger’s successful attack from further out. The likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) are associated with such ambitious attacks, and two years ago Frenchman Roman Bardet (Ag2r) made a name for himself two years ago with a long range effort that was only reeled in just nine kilometres from the finish.
World champion Rui Costa (Lampre) tends to pick his moment well, and could conceivably make Amstel Gold his first win in the rainbow jersey.
As the highest profile Dutch race this is very important for home riders, however they have not won since Erik Dekker’s success in 2001. Star rider Robert Gesink (Belkin) will not line-up having put his career on hold due to heart problems, so the locals will be rooting for his teammate Bauke Mollema and Garmin’s Tom Slagter to deliver. Aside from Swift, Great Britain will be represented by Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh and Josh Edmondson, all riding for Team Sky.