In the Amstel Gold Race, timing is everything.
Ever since the women’s race was reborn in 2017 and the old finish moved from the top of the final Cauberg climb to a point 1.6 kilometres down the road, what was once essentially a hill-climb championship after a few hours of pre-amble became one of the hardest and most tactical one-day races in the season.
Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing of attack, counter-attack and team tactics over the 18 preceding climbs, the key to the race is that gap between the Cauberg summit and the line. Sometimes it is just short enough for an all-out attack to go to the line. Sometimes just long enough for a chase group to reel it back.
Marta Cavalli was one of seven riders to come out clean from what she called the "washing machine" of the final descent into the foot of the Cauberg and the ascent up it. As the seven paused for breath on the false flat over the summit, Cavalli could see her six rivals across the road. She and her FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope teammates understood the significance of that moment, having discussed it the previous day on their recce ride.
“When you are in the back and in the front they slow down, this is the moment,” Cavalli said at the finish. If she had forgotten it in her temporary anaerobic haze, her sports director made sure she remembered.
“Marta, it’s money time!” Nicolas Maire yelled over the radio from the following car. “Try, try, you have nothing to lose!”
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio – at the head of the race and, with her SD Worx teammate Demi Vollering, part of the only squad to have two riders in the front group – looked over her right shoulder. At just that moment, Cavalli surged to her left. By the time the South African had realised the threat and chewed over whether to respond, the Italian had a 10 metre gap. Perfect timing.
Moolman Pasio was always going to be the one to chase; Vollering had the better sprint and every other rider was alone and exuding ‘don’t look at me’ vibes. Annemiek van Vleuten, who had wrung out every last watt in her ultimately futile attempt to break free on the Cauberg, was glued to the wheel, with Vollering, Kasia Niewiadoma, Liane Lippert and Mavi Garcia behind.
In her baggy insulated long-sleeve jersey and toe warmers, the odds didn’t exactly appear to be in Cavalli’s favour. A less aerodynamic outfit would be hard to find (she explained at the finish that the clothing was in response to being affected by the cold during last year’s race). She was hardly a pre-race favourite either, with her FDJ team’s strength being dented on the eve of the start with the withdrawals of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Brodie Chapman.
Yet the 24-year-old Cavalli has a background in the individual pursuit and with top tens in the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche and Paris-Roubaix last season, she has been knocking on the door. When it became clear the race would be decided by a mile-long drag race between her and Moolman Pasio into a slight tailwind, it quickly became clear those baggy sleeves had it in the bag.
For the second year in succession, SD Worx came up short in their home Classic. Last year, on the same suburban road, Moolman Pasio dragged the group back to escapees Kasia Niewiadoma and Elisa Longo Borghini, only for Vollering to sprint to second behind Marianne Vos.
This year Vollering won the small group sprint but second was the best on offer. As is often the case, the victory went to the rider who had nothing to lose.
The result highlights the ever-growing depth of talent in the Women’s WorldTour. This one was just a question of timing. Marta Cavalli got hers exactly right.
Cover image: Luc Claessen/Getty Images