After the cobblestone classics, which came to an end on Sunday with Paris-Roubaix, come the Ardennes Classics. Starting on Sunday with the Amstel Gold Race, while the classics to date suited the all-rounders and sprinters, the Ardennes Classics are much hillier in their profiles and therefore suit the climbers and stage race specialists.
Tinkoff’s sport director, Steven De Jongh, was eager to see how the change of terrain would influence the races. “It’s a whole new peloton and type of rider in the Ardennes to what we have seen at the spring classics so far, and we’re excited to get this part of the season started after a strong cobblestone campaign.”
Not known for its hills, the Netherlands is generally more famous for its flat, windswept roads. This is not the case for the Amstel Gold Race – this year’s edition – the 51st in its history – has thirty-four short-yet-tough climbs in a 264km route that circles the southern-most part of the Dutch Limburg region, from its start in Maastricht to the finish on the Cauberg climb in Valkenburg.
Because the race brings a different kind of rider to it looking for the win, this first of the climbers’ classics should lead to some dramatic racing, De Jongh continued. “It should be an interesting race as some teams want to push for a sprint with fast guys, while others, like us, want to make it a hard race and to try to avoid a larger group finish. We’ll have to be aware of the late breaks that go clear and then see what happens on the Cauberg at the end.”
The route itself is a number of progressively smaller circuits, many of which take in the same climbs on as many as four occasions. The difficulty of the race can be attributed to a number of features, but perhaps the most important is the sheer number of climbs and the how little time there is to recover between each one. The climbs themselves are not especially difficult by alpine standards, but in the first 100km there are ten climbs, while in a little more than 50km, there are no fewer than nine climbs before the finish.
Looking at what it takes to win the race, Roman Kreuziger said: “I could say that the Amstel Gold is one of the craziest classic races. It’s never calm, it’s always up and down and the bunch is often very stretched. You need to get experience on that race, you need to ride year after year to learn how you can reach the finish with as much energy as possible. When I won in 2013 it was amazing to have Karsten Kroon in the team, a rider that lives in the area and knows exactly the time to make each move. He was a smart rider and it was a big school for us to have him in that race.
“I have now raced six times there, so I think I have acquired the required knowledge, I have the parcours engraved on my mind. When I won in 2013, the finish had already changed and I think that this new finish is a bit more difficult for a rider like myself because you have to be very fast. Nobody would go away alone or in two but instead you will have a group of 10-20 riders that then sprint for the victory.”
While much of the attention will be on the Cauberg, which is climbed four times, there are plenty of other climbs on the route to be feared. One such climb is the Eyserbosweg, coming just under 40km from the finish, the average gradient of the climb is 8.1% over its 1.1km distance, with a maximum gradient of 18%. Additionally, the Keutenberg is a fairly short climb but carries a brutal maximum gradient of 22% and it being fairly narrow, it is the climb where many riders launch their final attacks before the final climb of the Cauberg.
In addition to the climbs, riders will have to contend with a technically challenging course. The roads themselves are narrow and pass through residential areas – something which brings with it some challenges unique to this race. Because of the urban nature of some of the race and its course, riders will have to negotiate roundabouts, kerbs, chicanes, bollards, speed bumps and other traffic-calming measures. The Amstel Gold Race is well known for its crashes.
Tinkoff will be coming to the race with a strong team and an experienced leader, as De Jongh revealed the team members ahead of the race. “We head to Amstel Gold Race with one leader in Roman Kreuziger, and two other protected riders that will help look after him deep into the race but who are also capable of getting results here – Robert Kiserlovski and Michael Valgren.”
The Czech rider has had a strong start to the season, and rode strongly in support of Alberto Contador in last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco, in which Alberto won the overall GC classification. Having won this race in 2013, knowing full well the challenges it poses, as De Jongh noted in advance of the race. “Roman won here in 2013 and on this course having good knowledge of the race is important as the whole day you’re going up and down, left and right on small, twisty roads. You need to stay attentive all day with all the climbs, and Roman’s knowledge will be important for the others that are less experienced here.”
Joining Kreuziger, Kiserlovski and Valgren in Maastricht on Sunday will be Jesper Hansen, Jay McCarthy, Evgeny Petrov, Yuri Trofimov and Pavel Brutt. All of the team has ridden well, playing a key part in Tinkoff’s success in the UCI WorldTour so far this season.
Roman Kreuziger added: “After Pais Vasco I am having a recovery week because we spent a lot of energy in a hard race under bad weather. The focus this week is on resting and recovering and a team soigneur is here with me for the massages. I don’t know whether I will be able to repeat my victory by this is one of the big goals of the season and I have prepared for it and hope to be ready. In addition to be in good shape, you need to like these races to be successful. I consider them very nice and I’m happy to have competed there so many times. I’m always focused when I hit the start line in such classics.
“In what regards the squad that will support me, in that race we will be able to assess how Jay McCarthy performs after the training camp. Michael Valgren will do all three Ardennes classics and Amstel Gold suits him the most. We will have to be smart on Sunday and do our best. Our competitors will go there with ambitions as well and we will have to keep an eye on everybody.”
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Amstel Gold Race ardennes classics michael valgren roman kreuziger Tinkoff