This is what awaits the riders at the end of Sundays Amstel Gold Race, the first of the hilly Ardennes Classics. It is of course the final climb into the finish - The Cauberg. A short sharp climb typical of the Ardennes Classics the race has finished here since 2003 and the riders will tackle the Cauberg twice before the final climb just before the finish. The hill has been used in several Grand Tours and in 5 previous World Championships, most recently last years which saw the race end 2km after the Cauberg - the Amstel Gold race usually finishes at the top of the Cauberg but this year the run in to the finish will be the same as last years World Championships. So how will this effect the climb and of course the race?...
Last years winner of the Amstel Gold race, Enrico Gasparotto, may struggle this time around after being hit by a truck whilst out training yesterday. Thankfully he didn't suffer any serious injury and even managed to get back on his bike and complete a 4 hour training block. But whilst last years winner might not be in the best shape, last years World Championships winner Philippe Gilbert looks to be finally coming into some form as he finished second to Peter Sagan on Wednesday at De Brabantse Pijl. Gilberts win in last years Worlds means that the change of finish in this years Amstel Gold race certainly doesn't rule out the puncheurs, so is this race still won on the Climb?
The Cauberg itself is a 1500 metre uphill drag around 5% that ramps upto around 12% which in itself doesn't present much of a challenge - factor in that the peloton will climb the Cauberg three times on top of all of the other days undulating miles (34 climbs) and the final ascent up here will be a leg-breaker. The bunch will hit the bottom of the climb as if it were pan-flat so positioning is vital - riders who want to win this race will want to be right at the front and as others jostle behind it can become a dangerous slope for anyone not able to keep the pace as there is a risk of being clattered from behind and causing a pile-up. It is possible that whoever gets over the top first can hold on for the win but it will be a fast and frantic finish.
So who will contest the finish? I have already mentioned that Gasparotto has had an accident but he will still line up to start of the race and will certainly want to try and defend his title. Philippe Gilbert is looking to be improving having missed the cobbles to ride in the Basque Country in an effort to sharpen up ahead of the Ardennes and if Brabantse Pijl is anything to go by it looks as though things are finally heading in the right direction though he was pipped to the line by Peter Sagan who finished third in Amstel last year - which is almost surprisingly low down the pecking order in a race with terrain like this - though Sagans form this year is perhaps markedly better at this point than last year. This is also in fact the only one of the Ardennes races that Sagan is down to compete in which does seem slightly odd but it means he will be going all out for the win in hope of salvaging something from his classics season. Take away Gilbert and BMC's best option is still Greg Van Avermaet who looks to have held his form quite well, though he looked to be going full gas on the final climb of Brabantse Pijl mid-week and Sagan just skipped past like it was a junior race. If Gilbert fails to perform in the Ardennes it's likely that BMC will literally leave with nothing, again, a terrible return on a very large investment. As ever Joaquim Rodriguez can never be discounted on a course like this though the final run in to the finish might not suit him as much as Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Movistar come well equipped and they have made great steps as a team since last year following Sky's scientific model. Nairo Quintana has been at the fore of this movement and is a late edition, Valverde and Rui Costa will race in a very strong squad.
|Slagter would love |
a local victory
Sky? Well I spoke earlier in the week
about their remaining chances to bag a classic and if the Cobbles were a disaster then the hilly-classics should be far easier to manufacture a victory. Boasson Hagen is on the team-sheet again but lets hope Sky have learnt their lesson and perhaps choose to back the likes of in-form Henao or the punchy Jon Tiernan-Locke for the Ardennes. Orica GreenEdge come with a super strong team including Simon Gerrans who has performed well here in the past as do Saxo-Tinkoff with Roche, Kreuziger, Kroon and both Sorensens all lining up at the start. Some other names I'm hoping will at least be in the mix are AG2R's Romain Bardet and Lotto's Jelle vanendert who has been a little anonymous this year. Look out for Blanco's local boy Tom Slagter too...
If I was pushed to pick a favourite then it would be Peter Sagan not only because of his current form but the situation he's in plays into his hands as the last chance to grab a classics win this year means he's sure to be very eager. There are plenty of other riders in with a shout - far too many to name but barring major incident it's hard to see beyond the Slovakian. Look out for Gilbert on the second step of the podium and perhaps a good performance from Slagter in his home-race will bring him a place on the third step.
Perhaps there isn't quite the excitement that surrounds the cobbled classics but the hillier Ardennes can make for some great racing and with the absence of Peter Sagan in two of them it should make for some varied results and possibly more aggressive racing. If you found yourself bored by the Tour of Flanders this year after four hours of coverage worry not because here you only really need to catch the last 20km to garner most of the excitement though coverage will start well beforehand allowing plenty of time to kick back with a glass of Amstels finest beer...