By David Hunter
Maastricht – Valkenburg 263km
Time for the next phase of the season to begin.
One of the hardest one-day races on the planet, Amstel Gold is one for the strongmen of the sport. The whole day is spent on narrow roads and with no rest between the climbs, it’s an elimination race, which is why it suits the strongmen. Individually, the climbs aren’t overly difficult, but once you build in the fatigue factor, you start to understand why this is so hard.
Sunny and warm.
The Kruisberg signals the start of the finale of the race. Not particularly difficult, but positioning is crucial, and we usually see a sprint lead out into the bottom of it.
The Eyserbosweg is one of the hardest climbs in the race and is tough enough to see some splits.
The Keutenberg is often described as the steepest climb in the Netherlands, and it does start with a real punch. This always draws out some attacks, but having the legs to continue on the false flat is incredibly difficult. This is the hardest climb in the whole race.
The Cauberg has lost its special place in the race.
The Geulhemmerbeg is the last significant climb. It comes soon after the Cauberg and this is where the front group can slim down a bit.
The Bemelerberg is the final climb of the race, but not the most difficult. Tired legs can see riders get dropped, but it’s very difficult for someone to escape at this point and solo to the finish.
Tactics (Soon to be renamed the Astana section!)
The new title gives away my thinking. Astana have dominated stage races this season, taking GC wins in Colombia, Catalunya, Itzulia, Valenciana, Provence, Murcia, Andalucía and Oman. They made the bold decision to keep a very strong group of riders together for many races, a decision that now looks like genius. They come here with almost the same squad that dominated in the Basque Country: Ion Izagirre, Gorka Izagirre, Luis León Sánchez, Jakob Fuglsang, Alexey Lutsenko, Omar Fraile and Laurens De Vreese. The Belgian is the only change, he comes in to replace Pello Bilbao. This squad is dripping with power, something that will concern the other teams.
Don’t look for Astana controlling the early stages of the race, this isn’t their responsibility. They’ll come to the front inside the final 100km and blow the race to pieces. In my opinion, they have the strongest squad in the race, they will use this to their advantage. Think back to last season, one of the reasons Valgren won was the fact that Astana had two men in the front group, the only team with multiple representation. They are stronger this year, I expect 2 or 3 Astana men to make the front group. If/when this happens, it’s game over for the other teams.
Michael Valgren – the defending champion hasn’t enjoyed the start to 2019. Illness ruined the early part of the season, but since then, he’s struggled to find the little bit extra required to challenge in the big races. Since Flanders, he’s had a chance to get some good training in the legs and hit the reset button, something that will help for this race. Amstel Gold is a race that Valgren always does well in, something that will give him a little bit of a confidence boost. I fully believe that he’s not far off getting back to himself and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him going very well in one of his favourite races.
Astana – they won this race in 2018, mainly due to having two riders in the front group. Now that Valgren has left, they look towards the other riders in their squad to join Fuglsang in the front selection. After a fantastic performance in Itzulia, it could be Ion Izagirre making the step up this year, or maybe Alexey Lutsenko. Astana arrive with a ridiculously talented squad, one that I think will likely dominate the race. Just like last year, if they have multiple representation in the front group, there is every chance of them retaining the title.
Max Schachmann – the German has been one of the most impressive riders in 2019, something that will have delighted his bosses at Bora. They took a slight risk signing him from QuickStep, but what a move it’s turned out to be. Already with five wins to his name, he can approach this race with a huge amount of confidence. Sagan will also be riding this race, but I expect the German to be the team leader, but having Sagan will be a massive help. Given his recent form, he should be challenging for the win.
Julian Alaphilippe – his crash in Itzulia looked a sore one, but with no broken bones, it shouldn’t slow him down. Alaphilippe has started 2019 in amazing from, culminating in his win in Milan-Sanremo. The French star has everything required to win this race, in fact, there is a chance he wins all three of the Ardennes races this week. QuickStep have a strong team, but they won’t dominate as they have done in the earlier classics; their cobbled squad is much stronger than their Ardennes one. Likely to be alone in the finale, we’ll have to see if Alaphilippe can get his tactics right.
Tim Wellens – he looked back to his normal self on Wednesday. After a good start to the season, Wellens looked slightly off form in Strade Bianche and Tirreno Adriatico. After a period of rest, he looked strong in the Tour of Flanders and now seems back on track. The constant climbing in this race is perfect for his attributes, but he could find himself in a similar position to Wednesday, knowing that he can’t outsprint some of his rivals. He needs to attack from far out and not wait for the final climbs.
Alejandro Valverde – form is not where it usually is at this point of the season, but he won’t be panicking. He finished in the front group in Flanders, an impressive result on debut, and he now lines up at the races he really enjoys. It’s quite hard to work out what’s happening with Valverde this season, is he eventually starting to slow down? If he finishes in the front group, there will be faster finishers than him, winning this race will be difficult.
Michal Kwiatkowski – just like Alaphilippe, he crashed hard in Itzulia and had to abandon. The former world champion has started the season in fine form, finishing 3rd in Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. Missing out on some racing in the Basque Country isn’t ideal preparation for the Ardennes, but I’m sure he’ll cope. Winning this race won’t be easy for him, but he should be targeting a spot on the podium.
Michael Matthews – impressed in Brabantse Pijl, it was good to see him follow the big moves and not wait for a sprint. The Aussie’s start to the year was interrupted, but his form has been very impressive over the last few weeks. He won two stages in Catalunya and followed that up with 6th in Flanders, a result which shouldn’t be underestimated. In races like this, Matthews can follow most of the big attacks, but seems to lack a little in the closing kilometres. As he gets older and gains more experience, he should cope better towards the end of big races, he has to be one of the big contenders for the win. One slight issue could be the strength of his team, Sunweb don’t have a great squad with them, due to injuries to some of their key men.
Mathieu Van Der Poel – the MVDP factor! After choosing not to ride Paris-Roubaix, you just know that he expects to win Amstel Gold. A crash ruined his chances in Flanders, although he somehow still managed to finish 4th, I still can’t work that one out! This race is perfect for him, but his team are weak, so when is he going to attack? As I’ve mentioned before, the Dutch champion doesn’t follow the normal rule book, he’ll be looking to move early and force out the team leaders. If we get a small sprint, he’ll back himself to win, just look at what he did in Brabantse Pijl.
Tadej Pogačar – I wouldn’t normally include a 20-year-old as a contender for such a demanding race, but the Slovenian has been very impressive this season. We shall have to wait and see what role his team want him to fulfil, but he has the potential to surprise.
The Amstel crown will stay in Denmark, this time on the head of Jakob Fuglsang. This is Astana’s race.
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