This Sunday 18th April we’ll welcome the return of the Amstel Gold Race with open arms. In 2020, the race was cancelled due to the Covid-19, and its absence left a void in the Women’s World Tour calendar.
The first of the three Ardennes classics, Amstel Gold has always provided exciting finales. Its selective and undulating course invites riders to race aggressively.
Canyon SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma took a nail-biting victory in 2019. Her blistering attack on the final ascent of the Cauberg splintered the remainder of the bunch and allowed her to build a gap over her closest rivals: Annemiek van Vlueten and Marianne Vos.
In classic van Vleuten style, the European champion took off after Niewiadoma in dramatic pursuit, but the Polish rider persisted, holding on to take a popular victory by only a bike length when they finally reached the finish line. Marianne Vos rounded off the podium, winning the sprint from a select group of climbing talent 10 seconds behind the lead duo, one that included the likes of Demi Vollering and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
Notably, Marta Bastianelli also finished in 8th place from a chasing group. She’s known as a sprinter and we might not expect her to be suited to the parcours of Amstel Gold. Perhaps her presence at the pointy end of the race means that it isn't solely suited to the pure climbers. Could a punchy rider like Coryn Rivera or Hannah Barnes be a surprise winner?
Kasia Niewiadoma was the 2019 winner (Photo credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)
Changes to this year’s route make the race favorites notoriously difficult to pick, since we haven’t seen riders tackle this course in the past. In order to allow for the event to run safely with the Covid-19 requirements this season, the organisation is holding it on a closed circuit with no spectators.
The riders will tackle 13 laps of 16.5km, and each lap will include three decisive climbs: the Geulhemmerberg, the Bemelerberg and the Cauberg. The Geulhemmerberg and the Bemelerberg have average gradients of 5%, each around 1km in length.
After those first two climbs, the riders will reach a false flat and then descend back into the village of Valkenburg, which lies at the foot of the Cauberg. The final ascent of the Cauberg climb comes at 2.6km from the finish, its gruelling average gradient of 6.5% making it one of the most famous and difficult climbs in the Netherlands.
With its proximity to the finish, we can expect to see the race-winning move go from there, but the question is: how many riders will remain in the group at that point? If a strong team like SD Worx or Trek Segafredo decides to light things up early on and make the race selective, we can expect to see a smaller bunch. If riders look to conserve energy ahead of the final showdown, it could be more than just the climbing specialists at the head of the race.
Despite the changes in route, it is still an extremely testing course and is likely to be a brutal race of attrition. Those who want to contend the victory will need to be on top physical form but also need to be tactically astute on relatively unfamiliar parcours.
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Following her spectacular solo victory at the Tour of Flanders, Annemiek van Vleuten looks like she will be hard to beat. The short, steep climbs of the Ardennes are not too dissimilar to those we saw in Flanders and van Vleuten has proved her ability to distance her competitors on this sort of terrain.
However, her rivals will be aware of her strategy and all eyes will be watching her on the hills. Teams like Trek Segafredo have strength in numbers with Elisa Longo Borghini (winner of Trofeo Binda) and Lizzie Diegnan who finished second in this race in 2017. Masters of teamwork, Trek look as if they are slowly coming into the collective form they showed late last season. They will be looking to isolate van Vleuten, who may not have many teammates to support her in the finale.
SD Worx are bringing a seriously impressive roster to this race. Their team is rife with climbing talent, including Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman, and if World Champion Anna van der Breggen is able to race after missing Brabantse Pijl due to illness they will be riding in support of her. She won Amstel Gold in 2017 and always performs exceptionally well in the Ardennes week, the Limburg hills playing into van der Breggen’s talents.
Although not a pure climber, SD Worx will also have the winner of Strade Bianche, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak in their armoury. In 2018, Broek-Blaak came to the line in a small group of 5 riders and took an impressive sprint win. If a reduced bunch does come to the line, van den Broek-Blaak will be a great option for the Dutch team.
Marianne Vos, Cecile Uttrup Ludwig and Soraya Paladin are the other names we know to watch out for on such a difficult course. With all three of them making it into the top 5 at Trofeo Alfredo Binda earlier this season – a race with similar undulating parcours – they will be looking to contest the podium on Sunday.
Finally, defending champion Kasia Niewiadoma will be looking to take a second, consecutive victory in Amstel Gold and she’ll have the full support of the Canyon SRAM squad behind her. Young climbing talent Mikayla Harvey could prove crucial to Niewiadoma in the early stages, as she’ll be able to guide and position her well on the climbs. Hannah Barnes will be useful in a role as a domestique, but similar to Broek-Blaak, she can produce a fast sprint from a small group if she is there at the end.
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Team Bike-Exchange’s Amanda Spratt has had a slower opening to the season but is well suited to the hills of Amstel Gold and she has a strong team behind her, including Grace Brown, winner of Brugge De Panne.
Lizzy Banks will return to competition following a few weeks out due to concussion. Despite her break from racing, Banks has been training hard at home in the Peak District so will be no stranger to steep climbs.
The American squad of Team Tibco - SVB have been getting stronger each race, albeit flying slightly under the radar. Kristen Faulkner secured a top 10 in both Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, whilst Australian ITT Champion Sarah Gigante is a phenomenal climber who will welcome the Dutch bergs. It’s a tall order, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see this Continental team ruffling the feathers of the World Tour.
Cover image: Alex Broadway/SWPix