The Amstel Gold Race saw Etixx-Quick-Step finally win the major Spring Classic they had craved. Considering the strength of the team, the past month has been a disappointment for the Belgian outfit but Sunday afternoon saw Michał Kwiatkowski come through in style to give the team their first win in the Ardennes since Paolo Bettini’s 2002 triumph in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
If he wasn’t already, the Pole is now one of the main favourites for La Doyenne. Another who will be in contention is BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, a protagonist again on Sunday in a race he has made his own.
Movistar repeated Sky’s tactical blunder in the Northern Classics, while home fans will have been disappointed as Dutch riders delivered their worst collective performance at the race since 1996. When all is said and done, however, this was a hugely enjoyable edition of the Amstel Gold Race: a wonderful desert to the feast of Flanders and Roubaix, or a mouth watering hors d’oeuvre to the banquet that might be served at Liège, depending on your view.
Quick-Step find their rhythm, finally
A recurring theme of Spring has been the failure of the Belgian heavyweights to win from favourable positions. On numerous occasions we have seen several of the team’s riders in the lead group, only for others to outwit them, notably Ian Stannard (Team Sky) at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff at De Ronde.
That wasn’t the case in Limburg though, with the double act of Kwiatkowski and Tony Martin succeeding where Štybar, Terpstra and Vandenbergh had previously failed. As we’ve seen several times before (recent examples include Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco), the German sacrificed himself for the World Champion, going on the offensive some forty kilometres from the end to force other teams to work.
Michał Kwiatkowski was the big winner, resplendent in the rainbow jersey. pic: Offside/L'Équipe
Later on, Kwiatkowski played the finale to perfection. There was never a sign of panic as others jumped away, and he was always near the front, monitoring the situation and saving energy until it was time to make his move.
That move came in the final metres of the race. Coming from some way back (he was fifth in line when he launched his sprint), he powered past the likes of Orica-GreenEDGE’s Michael Matthews to take his second win of the season.
A true all-rounder with almost limitless talent, Kwiatkowski can seemingly pick and choose his goals. Liège is the next one, but beyond he has the ability to win almost anywhere. As a rider, his versatility is similar to the Tony Martin of old. With such a wide skillset, can Kwiatkowski become the GC rider that Martin couldn’t?
Movistar’s disappearing act
At the other end of the scale were Movistar. In a manner similar to that of Sky at Flanders, the Spanish team controlled the peloton for much of the early stages of the race. However, when the real racing started they were found wanting.
Alejandro Valverde was left isolated by his team. pic: Offside/L'Équipe
Yes, Alejandro Valverde managed to finish second, but he largely had himself to thank rather than a great team effort. That none of his teammates finished inside the top forty was testament to their lack of presence in the finale, while the likes of BMC Racing and Orica-GreenEDGE bossed the race in the closing stages.
A puncture late on and a lonely chase back to the peloton couldn’t stop him getting onto the podium though. At the grand old age of 34 he still looks the same rider that triumphed at Flèche Wallonne and Liège back in 2006.
Déjà vu for BMC Racing
Philippe Gilbert won last year’s edition of the race, with his attack on the Cauberg coming after teammate Samuel Sánchez’s effort at the bottom of the hill. It was such a success that BMC Racing tried it again this time round.
Philippe Gilbert tried, but wasn't quite strong enough to repeat last year's victory. pic: Offside/L'Équipe
Brabantse Pijl winner Ben Hermans was the man chosen to go early, with the Belgian jumping away in the same place Samuel Sànchez had twelve months earlier. Once he was caught, it was Gilbert’s turn to deliver victory.
Only it didn’t turn out like 2014, as Matthews put in a Herculean effort to stick to his wheel. As the duo crested the Cauberg, the other favourites caught up and Gilbert’s chance was gone. A second victory at Liège on Sunday is the grander objective though, and he certainly looks to have the form to challenge.
Ardennes Week starts with a bang
It was perhaps the most exciting edition of the race since the finishing straight was extended to mimic the finale of the 2012 World Championships. With the peloton at full gas for much of the last ninety kilometres, there was a seemingly constant stream of action to enjoy.
As the break fractured on the final lap a stream of late attacks was set off when Orica-GreenEDGE’s Simon Clarke jumped away. Vincenzo Nibali put in his token attack in a Classic - livening up the race, but not really a move intended to win.
Among others, Martin and Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) went with him, forming a dangerous move before crashes and Kelderman’s cross-country trip fatally depleted the group.
The peloton descend through the Dutch countryside. pic: Offside/L'Équipe
Later on there were attacks on the run-in to Cauberg, with CCC-Sprandi’s Maciej Paterski leading the race at one point. Gilbert’s late attack is one of the most obvious moves in the sport but there was still nothing the peloton could do to stop him. Meanwhile there was intrigue right up to the line as the fastmen jostled for victory.
The Amstel Gold Race can be a disappointing follow up to Paris-Roubaix. This year, however, the opening fixture of Ardennes Week was a race to match l’Enfer du Nord.
Largely anonymous at their home race, the most notable moment for a Dutch rider was probably Wilco Kelderman overshooting a corner and riding through a ploughed field. He was joined by twenty-seven of his compatriots at the start but twenty-first place was the best any of the home riders could manage, with Roompot’s Maurits Lammertink the man in question.
Trek’s Bauke Mollema was another who might have expected more - he has finished in the top ten three times, but was only fifty-fifth this time. Forced out of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco by a high speed crash, perhaps he is still suffering. After a strong showing at the same race, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) was tipped to go well at this Ardennes Week, but he’s not off to a great start, finishing twenty-sixth yesterday.
The result stands out as especially poor given the grand history the Dutch have at their home race.
Jan Raas - The King of Amstel Gold, he won the race five times from eight attempts, only missing the podium once (he was fifth in 1981). Part of the powerhouse TI-Raleigh team, he was World Champion in 1979 and also won ten stages of the Tour de France along with Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (twice).
Jan Raas, winner of more Amstel Gold Races than anyone in history. pic: Offside/L'Équipe
Joop Zoetemelk - He only won the race once, towards the end of his career, but his greatest achievements lie elsewhere, namely his Tour de France win in 1980 (he was a runner-up six times). His palmarès also includes the 1979 Vuelta a España, three editions of Paris-Nice, and a World Championship win.
Gerrie Knetemann - Twice a winner at Amstel Gold, his victories came almost a decade apart. He filled the gap with a Paris-Nice win and a year in the World Champion’s stripes. His career also took in ten Tour de France stage wins.
Adri van der Poel - The son-in-law of Raymond Poulidor was a cyclocross champion but excelled on the road, too. His 1990 victory at Amstel Gold was one of many Classics victories, with the 1986 edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1988 the highlights.
Michael Boogerd - Part of the Rabobank setup for his entire career, Boogey was more famous for his near misses than his wins. He finished on the Amstel Gold podium five times, winning only once in 1999 - a year he later admitted to having doped during.