Now the cobbled Classics are done and dusted – literally, with the dry weather in Paris-Roubaix last week – attention switches to Ardennes Week, which kicks off on Sunday with the Amstel Gold Race, this year featuring a new finale that made its debut in last year’s World Championships, where Philippe Gilbert prevailed – but it’s Peter Sagan who is the man most are tipping to win.
The pair went head to head at the Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday, victory going to Sagan with Gilbert second; in each of the eight one-day races the 22-year-old Slovak has started this season, he’s finished either first, or been the best of the rest across the line, including a win in Gent-Wevelgem and runners-up spots at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.
Gilbert sat out that latter race due to a cold, wanting to ensure he was in peak condition going into the Ardennes campaign – those hills, by the way, lie well to the south of where the racing will be on Sunday, mainly in Belgium and Luxembourg and certainly not in the Netherlands, but over the years Amstel Gold has become one of the trio of races that make up the week.
Two years ago, Gilbert was unbeatable in Ardennes Week, winning all three – Amstel Gold, where he was defending champion, the Flèche Wallonne, and his home race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The Belgian couldn’t repeat anything like that form 12 months ago, in his first season with BMC Racing, his best result in those races being third in Flèche Wallonne.
His season finally came good in September, with two stage victories in the Vuelta showing he was in form prior to his attack on the final climb of the Cauberg to ride into the rainbow jersey. Sagan was in the group five seconds behind him, finishing 14th. Recent evidence is that Gilbert would find it harder to shake him off now.
The finale of that World Championships course moved the finish back from where it has traditionally been in Amstel Gold, at the top of that climb, with riders having another 1.8 kilometres to ride on the flat before they hit the line.
Right now, there’s no-one that suits better than Sagan – if he hits the bottom of the Cauberg in the front group, it’s going to take something very special indeed to ensure he’s distanced enough by the top of it not to respond, and he was third on the old finish last year; if he crests it in touch with the leaders, it’s difficult to see anyone outsprinting him with the form he’s in.
At Brabanste Pijl, when a late attack came from Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Nikolas Maes and BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, Sagan got no help in chasing them down – partly because the riders with him included team mates of the men out front, in the shape, respectively, of Sylvain Chavanel and Gilbert himself. It didn’t matter. The Cannondale rider towed them along, and won the sprint anyway.
There’s another 33 climbs to be negotiated in the 251.8 kilometre race, however, and they come thick and fast pretty much from the word go. Added to that, is the potential danger caused by street furniture throughout the parcours, which means that certainly until the field thins out towards the end, there will be a lot of fighting for position to keep near the front and out of trouble.
There can be a surprise winner though – it happened last year through Enrico Gasparotto of Astana, though his preparations to defend his title experienced a setback this week when he was hit by a truck when training; he will race, however.
Besides Gasparotto and Gilbert, there is one other former winner – Lampre-Merida’s Damiano Cunego – and while he won the mountains jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico and the points version at the Settimana Internazionale last month, he hasn’t recaptured the form that brought him some big wins in the late noughties.
Among other contenders are a number of riders who have been in action in the flatter Classics in recent weeks– among those Van Avermaet – and others whose seasons are starting to get going in earnest ahead of the Grand Tours, such as Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez.
That change to the finale is less likely to suit them than the old course, however, and their targets instead will be the races later in the week – Rodriguez won the Flèche Wallonne last year.
Other riders who could well be in the final mix include Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge, a past third-place finisher here, the Team Sky trio of Edvald Boasson Hagen – second to Gilbert in the Worlds last year – Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Thomas Voeckler of Europcar and AG2R-La Mondiale’s Carlos Betancur. On their day, any of those if they got into the right move are potential winners.
That right group though would almost certainly have to exclude Sagan. Bike racing being bike racing, a chute or puncture at the wrong time could rule him out of contention; if he’s there at the end though, it’s unlikely anyone will have the legs to challenge him for the win, even Gilbert.
There’s a flythrough video on the race website of this year’s route here, as it snakes through the countryside of the south east corner of the Netherlands, looping and often doubling back on itself. You'll also find downloadable maps and time schedules and much more.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.