The finale of Amstel Gold Race is arguably the best hour of racing in the whole of the WorldTour season.
The Dutch Classic isn’t quite a Monument, but it has all the best traits of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix: narrow roads, fights for position, tactical intrigue and the all-or-nothing intensity that accompanies a prestigious one-day race.
The race doesn’t have the wrecking-ball special effects of Roubaix, and it isn’t the exercise in Darwinian survival of the fittest that the end-game of the modern Tour of Flanders has become. The Amstel Gold Race is open to a much wider cast of stars, each one of them with different ways of winning and different strengths to help them achieve it.
In this year’s edition of the men’s race, the tension even carried on until after the finish line as the jury once again had to inspect the photo finish to determine the winner.
After Ineos Grenadiers and Tom Pidcock were denied victory under the microscope last season, the heartbreak of 2022 was left to Benoît Cosnefroy when his triumph – assumed by either himself or the race commissaires – was handed to Ineos and Michał Kwiatkowski.
If there’s an argument that the Amstel Gold Race is the best one-day race in the world (and there certainly is) then there’s an argument that Michał Kwiatkowski is the best racer. The Polish former world champion was a victor here in 2015 when riding in the rainbow jersey for Quick-Step and has since become one of the most versatile riders in the peloton.
Sprinting or solo attacking, climbing or descending, in the high mountains at the front of the Ineos mountain train of domestiques or on the cobbles, there’s not much that Kwiatkowski can’t do (and do well). However it had been five years since Kwiato had won in the Classics and his adaptable brilliance had been overshadowed by Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
On paper, unlike most of his rivals, Kwiatkowski could have won this race in any number of different ways. Slipping away almost unnoticed under the penultimate passage of the finish line with around 22km to go, however, would not have been high on the list. But when Kwiatkowski squeezed the throttle to the ring of the bell and found himself out front, he pressed ahead. Cosnefroy joined him a few kilometres later with a trademark uphill attack on the penultimate Geulhemmerberg climb.
There’s a certain feeling in a bike race when a gap is there to stay, when an almost imperceptible languor descends on a chase group and any tactical plays either serve to highlight their own futility or that the prize on offer for success is no longer the win.
In this race, that moment came when Kwiatkowski and Cosnefroy had half a minute’s advantage with around 10km to go, despite aggression from Marc Hirschi and two typically savage digs from a somewhat off-colour Mathieu van der Poel in the second group.
You can’t say it wasn’t deserved. Ineos (in particular their neo-pro Ben Turner) had shredded the race with 40km to go, the remnants of the peloton looking like the ruined farmhouse it passed on the top of the Keutenberg. After that Kwiatkowski was the one pressing home the advantage, and when it wasn’t him it was Tom Pidcock, whose evident frustrations inside the second group once his teammate was up the road were at least rewarded with team victory.
There was a certain feeling too that the winner would be Kwiatkowski. Who else but the elder rider who also counted Milan-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke, two Strade Bianches and umpteen other WorldTour wins to his name?
Kwiatkowski looked like he knew it too. However what most would have assumed to have been sang-froid looked concerningly like fatigue when Cosnefroy opened his sprint to the line early and Kwiatkowski struggled to come around.
In the end, for a man of many talents and in a race that can be won in many ways, it came down to a bike throw. Kwiatkowski simply timed it better, with the Frenchman lunging for a phantom line half a wheel too late.
There was next to nothing in it to the naked eye, just as there was when the pair stood on the podium and simultaneously downed their congratulatory glasses of Amstel, a competition that thankfully required no winner.
“I learned a little bit from last year with Tom [Pidcock] that you have to wait with the euphoria,” an empty-looking Kwiatkowski said at the finish. Cosnefroy, equally dejected, can at least rest assured that one day, probably very soon, his time will come.
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