MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — The jury is still out on what impact course changes will have on Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.
A challenging final finishing circuit that features two passages up the Cauberg in the closing 21km, coupled with the relocation of the finish line nearly 2km after the final Cauberg summit, means the Amstel Gold Race is a very different race.
How those course changes alter the dynamics of the WorldTour race will unfold Sunday in the 251.8km Dutch classic.
A handful of sport directors queried Saturday by VeloNews all agreed on one thing: The Amstel Gold Race will be anything but predictable.
“It makes the race more open. There will be more attacks,” said Astana director Stefano Zanini. “Before it was very fast to the Cauberg, now there are two climbs up the Cauberg in the final lap, which changes everything.
“I see riders trying to attack on the final lap to arrive alone. If you’re strong, you can win like this. I don’t expect a big group for the finale.”
Amstel Gold has increased its summit tally from 32 to 34, with more than 4,000 meters of climbing, on par with a major mountain stage at the Tour de France.
Rather than serve that chunk of altitude in one or two long bites, the Amstel Gold Race is more like a looping rollercoaster of short, steep hills.
All eyes are on the new finishing circuit. The course used to dive straight into the Cauberg after tackling the Keutenberg, formerly the penultimate climb. This year, the course rolls over the Keutenberg and Cauberg as before, but hits two new climbs — the Geulhemmerberg at 16.5km to go and the Bemelerberg at 7.8km to go — before facing the Cauberg a fourth and final time.
That hilly circuit is laden with opportunities and challenges for the 23 teams lining up Sunday morning in Market Square in Maastricht.
“It’s hard to say what will happen. Before, you had the last hard climb with 7km to go and then the Cauberg. Now the final loop will change everything,” said Katusha sport director Valerio Piva.
“Maybe a big group will stay together. It depends on how many riders each captain has at his service. If it’s just the captains alone, then it could be very hard to control attacks. It was better for [Joaquim Rodríguez] when it ended on top of the Cauberg.”
Whether the finishing circuit is hard enough to break up the front group remains to be seen. It all depends on how hard the peloton races and what kind of support the favorites have in the closing hour of racing.
Cannondale and BMC will be riding to bring their captains and pre-race favorites Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert safely to the base of the final assault up the Cauberg.
Sagan is the overwhelming favorite, but Gilbert revealed in Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl he’s going to take it to the young Slovak.
The new finishing circuit opens up some interesting possibilities for teams hoping to eliminate Sagan.
“I think quite a few guys will be eliminated on the circuit. Before, a lot of fast guys could hang on until the Cauberg. Now it’s going to be a lot harder and some of the sprinter types can be dropped. I like it,” said Garmin-Sharp director Johnny Weltz.
“There will not be time to recover on the finishing loop. Even a guy who rides alone will have a chance to stay away.”
Race organizers decided it was time to spice things up for this year’s 48th edition of the Netherlands’ most important one-day race.
Race director Leo van Vliet said they were afraid the race was becoming too predictable since moving the finish line to atop the emblematic Cauberg in 2003.
“It’s hard to say, but after 10 years, we decided we must something, because the riders were waiting longer and longer. We tried to make it different,” van Vliet said.
“The riders, they make the race. We will see what happens. I really don’t know what to expect. I hope there will be more movement, more attacks, that’s what’s important.”
After a thrilling world championship last September, which saw Gilbert pull away clear on the Cauberg to win the rainbow jersey, organizers decided to move the Amstel Gold finish line to the same exact spot.
Even if a big group hits the Cauberg, having the finish line at about 1.8km after the climb opens up a scenario for well-timed attacks and desperate chases.
“Having the finish line after the Cauberg changes a little bit the strategy. We already have pretty good experience with this with Phil in the world championships,” said BMC sport director John Lelangue. “The final loop will make the climbs even more selective.”
As if the nervous, wind-buffeted Amstel Gold Race were not hard enough already.