Well, it wasn’t quite the outcome we expected from the first of the three Ardennes Classics… who knows what the other races have got in store? For now, let’s enjoy a brief recap of the moves that led to the win in Berg en Tibljit.
The race hadn’t even left Maastricht and the neutralised zone before it took its first casualty, with Trek’s Fabio Felline coming down over his bars in a freak accident. Felline, who might have fancied his chances out of a bunch sprint today, was instead whisked off to hospital with facial injuries, all before kilometre zero.
After things got going, a rapid pace stopped the chances of a break forming right away, and it was over an hour into things, and on an uphill section, that a lead group of eleven men finally got going, opening up a four-minute gap. They were destined to go a long way together, not being caught for around a further 190km.
In the meantime, there were further attacks and further crashes. Sky set the pace for much of the opening half of the race, and Orica carried on their hard work for the second — they were looking after Michal Kwiatkowski and Michael Matthews (as well as Simon Gerrans) respectively. The race really began heating up into the last 80km, when a four man group comprising Tosh Van Der Sande, Gianna Meersman, Björn Thurau, and Niccolò Bonifazio went clear, and started eating into the breakaway’s lead. This was the carrot on the stick the peloton needed.
Into the final 40km, and things were looking like business as usual: Orica were on the front, flanked by Sky; the gap was inching down in steady increments; attacks came on the bergs but were then neutralized. It looked like a day for the pre-race favourites in every way. But then the narrative took a strange turn. As the race heated up for the final laps, and the final ascents of the Cauberg, the favourites started disappearing out the back. Philippe Gilbert vanished in next to no time at all, leaving BMC fans stunned and at a loss. Next, and completely inexplicably, Michal Kwiatkowski lost ground and was out of the T.V. pictures, apparently unable to hold the pace despite having had his whole team spend their energy on him (Sky, it seemed, had no real back up plan — Sergio Henao and Lars Petter Nordhaug crossed the line in 28th and 29th). And not long after, the huge figure of Tom Dumoulin was a receding dot on the horizon, and the Giant-Alpecin man — admittedly riding back into form after his early season training camp accident — joined up with Gilbert for a while. They would come 81st (Gilbert) and 91st overall. Kwiatkowsi abandoned before the finish.
With the sudden disappearance of key favourites, including last year’s winner Kwiatkowski, there was disorder at the head of affairs. The breakaway was caught with 14km to go, but there was clearly confusion over who should be working on the front. Orica did their best: Albasini repeatedly returned to the front to take long, arduous turns in the wind, and Paris-Roubaix winner Matty Hayman was seen for several kilometres before the finale. But it was becoming clearer that forces and coordination were lacking in the peloton, and Orica had spent one too many of their resources. Attacks were starting to look like serious threats.
With 8km left, Roman Kreuziger powered out of the pack, but never gained too much ground on the peloton. However, the Tinkoff man provided the perfect springboard for Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, who cleared the gap to Kreuziger before breezing past him. In classic Wellens style, he rode hard and fast, arms dangling off the front of his bars in TT form. Wellens led the race into the final kilometres, and the final ascent of the Cauberg.
On the Cauberg, disorganisation was the curse of the peloton, and it was looking less and less likely that we’d be seeing anything like a clean bunch sprint. Orica still had Albasini hurling himself forwards, but they just did not have enough fresh legs to pose a threat when it mattered. The only riders to take a real throw of the dice, when the other teams were looking at one another in perplexity and not wanting to work for one another, were Enrico Gasparotto and Michael Valgren. Gasparotto surged past Wellens, who was reabsorbed by the peloton, and Valgren kept his wheel well into the final drag. You could see on Valgren’s face that he was trying to weigh up the decision whether to come round Gasparotto and work with him, or just hope the Italian could pace him to a win. Valgren made what was probably the smarter choice, and took his turn in the wind. It would cost him the win, as Gasparotto charged past and easily stole the show, but they probably wouldn’t have held off the peloton if he hadn’t put in a turn (Gasparotto himself, in his post-race interview, said as much, and was grateful to Valgren).
So the thirty-four year old Gasparotto took his second Amstel Gold Race, ahead of a field that included (on paper) in-form young classics riders supported by strong and dedicated squads. It’s never the most satisfying kind of finish — effectively, the riders at the head of the peloton let Gasparotto win, because no one wanted to lead a rival into the finish, and no team had strength in numbers. His race, in the final few hundred metres, was only against Valgren, who seems delighted with a second place. It makes you wonder what would be going through the mind of, say, Michael Matthews, or perhaps Tony Gallopin; surely it would have been worth at least a go at a hard push from further back than usual, a kick up to the finish and a roll of the dice? The risk is that they would have led another team’s rider to the finish, and their own sports director might have given them a stern telling off. But this is bike race: why not have a go? However, it was, all in all, a good race, and it’s a pleasure to see Gasparotto grab another big victory. On to La Flèche Wallone!