One of the youngest Classics race offers glory to a different class of riders than the heroes of the cobbles. This Sunday, the Netherlands gets its turn as center of the WorldTour universe. The curtain has fallen on the pave for yet another season, with Greg van Avermaet finally, finally taking his first monument on the velodrome of Roubaix. Peter Sagan will turn his attentions to another green jersey in July, and many of the big names of March will turn into high-horsepower domestiques for much of the rest of the year. The limelight falls on a different mix of riders in Ardennes, and we’ll get a good look at many of those this Sunday.
While Ardennes truly starts today with Brabantse Pijl midweek (today, in fact), Amstel is the bookend of the three big events, followed by Fleche Walloone and capped off by Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Amstel Gold is an incredible event that provides all the talking points for the rest of the races, showing who is good and who is lacking.
At just 51 years old, Amstel Gold is the baby of the Classics, but it’s proven a rather perfect recipe of rolling, non-stop climbs and a thrilling finish atop the now famous Cauberg. The climb has been featured not just in both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, but the World Championships, too, It’s a change that didn’t happen until the early 90s, and completely changed the identity of the race. Nevermore a chance for sprinters, it quickly became a must-win for puncheurs and climbers, even a number of Grand Tour contenders like Alexander Vinokourov and Frank Schleck. All that changes for 2017, with the last trip up the Cauberg now a limp 19 kilometers from the finish.
All that changes for 2017, with the last trip up the Cauberg now a limp 19 kilometers from the finish. For riders familiar with the rhythm of the race, it’s going to mean a lot of attacking racing to get rid of the sprinters before the finish. There are plenty of chances to make selections, but how committed with teams be to lugging their sprinters to the line?
The course has seen multiple changes over 5 decades, but the current parcours has settled with a heavy emphasis on short, punchy climbs that never seem to end. Writer Peter Eaton does the math for us:
“…applying logic to overcome a sense of incomprehension is the key to understanding this race. And there is truth in numbers. Six of the climbs come in the first 92 kilometers — one every 15.2 kilometers. The remaining 25 come over the final 165 kilometers. That’s one every 6.6 kilometers. Breaking it down further, the final hour of racing has eight climbs in 42 kilometers. Now we’re down to one every 5.25 km. At 40 km/h, that’s one every 7 ½ minutes. Not overly funny, and definitely all business.”
Some riders simply thrive, and after a few dormant years, one former winner is expected to shine. Phillipe Gilbert used to be the undisputed king of the Ardennes. He’s won the race three times, his first victory in 2011, a season where he swept the three Ardennes Classics after romping to a win at Strade Bianche to kick off the season. He memorably outdueled both Schleck brothers at Liege that year, and would take the rainbow jersey the following season.
After an impressive spring and a legendary Ronde win, he skipped Roubaix with all eyes on Amstel, Fleche, and Liege. He’s got all the support in the world at QuickStep, and with the team losing Julian Alaphillipe, they’re down to Gilbert and Dan Martin as their top options, although Peter Vakoc will be in the hunt as well.
Next, the ageless Alejandro Valverde has won nearly everything he’s wanted to this spring, which includes everything from stage races, mountaintop finishes, and even a sprint or two. He’ll feature all week long.
Paris-Roubaix winner Greg van Avermaet will save his trip to the beach for another week, but he’ll be there largely in a support role. BMC will look to roll with the punches and get Ben Hermans and Sammy Sanchez or another climber in touch, although GvA would be a great option at the end if it’s all together.
With so many potential winners for Sunday, we’re rooting for Michael Kwiatkowski. The Milan-San Remo winner was held out of Flanders this season, with Team Sky hoping to send the best team possible to Amstel and the Ardennes. With Wout Poels out with a nagging knee injury, Kwiatkowski is their best chance to win, which would be his second Amstel title in his young but impressive career. He’ll have a strong team in support, and should the Polish rider falter, Sergio Henao may be on hand to clean up. Kwiatkowski is coming good after a nightmare 2016, where sickness and overtraining made him a complete non-factor throughout the season. He was even dropped inside the last 20km at Amstel, slinking in several minutes behind winner Enrico Gasporrotto.