Cycling’s spring classics roll into the Netherlands on Sunday with a powerful cast of pretenders in the Amstel Gold Race where champion Philippe Gilbert will hope to make up for last week’s flop at Paris-Roubaix.
World Champion Peter Sagan triumphed in the Roubaix velodrome last Sunday with a long-range break from 55km out in a race overshadowed by the heart failure and death of 23-year-old Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts.
Ahead of last Wednesday’s De Brabantse Pijl race, the peloton held a minute’s silence and wore black armbands for their fallen colleague with winner Tim Wellens pointing to the sky in his memory at the finish line.
Sagan’s ambitious long-range attack mirrored those in previous classics races this spring, leading to victory for Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-SanRemo and Nicki Terpstra at the Tour of Flanders.
The Amstel Gold Race, a 262km run from Maastricht to Valkenburg, features an astonishing 35 climbs that make Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde joint favourite with the British bookmakers alongside Sagan.
But Gilbert is aiming for his fifth Amstel Gold title and can count on the Quick Step team that has been a formidable force so far this Spring.
“In my youth I trained around there a great deal, I know these roads like the back of my hand,” said the 35-year-old four-time winner.
“I’ve got over (losing at) Paris-Roubaix and I’m completely ready,” said Gilbert, who had been a pre-race favourite on the cobbles last Sunday but came 15th over three minutes adrift.
The savvy 2012 World Champion previously won here in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and has the chance to equal the record of Jan Raas which has stood since the 1980’s.
Ten years Gilbert’s junior, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe is also thought to have a good chance after coming 7th in 2015 and sixth in 2016 and having come second in four major one-day races.
“It’s a race in which you need to be fully focussed and concentrated,” said Alaphilippe.
Sagan won the Gent-Wevelgem before last Sunday’s sublime show of power and technique and is racing the Amstel Gold for the first time in five years.
Valverde has come close to winning here three times and has had better luck in next week’s Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
“Sometimes you need the luck,” Valverde said, when asked about the narrow, winding roads through the green hills.
Race director Leo Van Vliet has changed the course slightly this season.
“We have added in narrower streets to make it more difficult for a team to dominate,” he said.
Sky’s Polish hope Michal Kwiatkowski, who won here in 2015 will hope to do better than teammate Geraint Thomas who fell heavily on the way to Roubaix last week.
Nibali, Australia’s Michael Matthews — if it comes to a sprint — and the up-and-coming Belgians Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens, and their more established compatriot Greg Van Avermaet, should also be in the mix for this 52nd edition since the race’s inauguration in 1966.
UAE Team Emirates Fabio Aru will step up his preparations for next month’s Giro d’Italia when he tackles the Tour of the Alps starting in Italy on Monday.
The five-day race, going from Trentino and over the border to Innsbruck in Austria, will be a serious dress rehearsal for the Giro with Chris Froome and Miguel Angel Lopez among the other star names competing this week.
Aru, who has enjoyed a bright start to life with the UAE outfit, will be using the race to build up his fitness after withdrawing from the Volta a Catalunya last month due to a leg injury.
The 27-year-old crashed during the first stage of the race but continued to compete until the fifth stage before pulling out to allow his leg to recover.
Now back on his bike, Aru is relishing the prospect of repeating his early season form which saw him seal 13th place in the Abu Dhabi Tour and 12th in the Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Sardinian climber said. “I feel great. I’m going to find it tough at the Tour of the Alps, where I want to do well and prepare in the best possible way with an eye on my big goal, the Giro d’Italia.”
“It will be a difficult race, and there’s no shortage of climbs. It’s important to ride wisely, and whatever happens in the race, we’ll face when we get to it.”
Stage one on Monday sees the peloton tackle the 134.6km course from Arco to Folgaria, with an 18km climb to finish the day.
UAE Team Emirates line-up: Fabio Aru (Ita), Valerio Conti (Ita), Kristijan Durasek (Cro), Vegard Stake Laengen (Nor), Przemyslaw Niemec (Pol), Simone Petilli (Ita), Edward Ravasi (Ita).
Dan Martin and Rui Costa will lead UAE Team Emirates as the World Tour heads to Holland and Belgium for the Ardennes Classics on Sunday.
UAE Team Emirates has announced a strong team for the three races held within an eight-day timeframe, including Matteo Bono, Manuele Mori, Aleksandr Riabushenko, Rory Sutherland and Diego Ulissi.
The programme starts with the Amstel Gold Race in Holland on April 15, followed by the Fleche Wallonne in Belgium three days later and then the Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 22.
More than one million spectators are reported to gather for the three classics, which is now in its 29th year.
Irishman Martin will be using the Ardennes as a serious stepping stone towards the Tour de France in July – where he has achieved two top-10 finishes since 2016.
The 31-year-old, who captured the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and finished second in the 2017 edition of the Doyennes, is relishing the prospect of repeating his consistent displays in Belgium.
He said “Training gone well since Volta a Catalunya despite the heavy crash on the last stage. I’ve been in good condition all season but bad luck prevented me from showing it in results.
“I feel ready to head into some of my favourite races.”
His UAE team-mate Costa has also demonstrated his class in the Ardennes, finishing fourth in the 2015 Amstel Gold Race, fourth in the 2016 edition and fourth in the 2015 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The 31-year-old, who finished 12th in the Tour of the Basque Country last week, said: “I’m coming to the Ardennes with high morale and I’m confident that I can race to bring the team some significant results.
“The competition in these races is always fierce, but UAE Team Emirates will bring high quality; it’s an advantage to be able to count on a strong group.”