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Amstel Gold proves that riders, not the course, make the race

Tinkering with the course didn't make the Amstel Gold any more or less exciting. It was the riders who dictated the action

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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — Hyped-up changes to the Amstel Gold Race proved yet again that it’s not the course that makes the race, it’s the riders.

Despite plenty of fireworks from the likes of Johan Vansummeren and Mikel Astarloza out of a long-distance breakaway — not to mention the daring attack that gave Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) the most important win of his career — Belgian journalists covering the race couldn’t help themselves from heckling the TV screens: “When is the race going to begin?”

The Belgians love to take digs at their Dutch neighbors, especially at their beer, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying that the Amstel Gold Race seemed stuck on slow motion.

Several factors altered the dynamics of the race, and it wasn’t just the technical glitch that forced broadcasters to keep switching to slow-mo’ replays of random shots when the race finally started to heat up in the final hour.

One crash took out Spanish animator Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) while another stymied Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp). Both started the 251.8km race in Maastricht on Sunday morning with big ambitions.

So, too, did world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing). His seemingly unbreakable rainbow-jersey curse continued at Amstel — a crash cost him time, and his chase back to the peloton cost him energy in the finale, where he could finish only fifth after a valiant last-ditch effort to bring back Kreuziger.

Unseasonably warm weather, which saw temperatures spike into the low 80s after weeks of cold, miserable conditions, caught out a few riders, most notably Peter Sagan (Cannondale).

Sagan had hoped for big things at Amstel Gold, but succumbed to cramps and proved that he is human after all, finishing 36th. That ended Sagan’s Merckx-esque 2013 classics run, in which he had won or finished second in every one-day race he’d started.

The strong southerly winds that blew in the summer-like weather drew out the crowds, but also kept aggression on a short leash. Riders who did dare attack, as did Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), on the final circuit, found it hard plowing against the heavy crosswinds.

The highly anticipated course changes played a role, too, but not the one organizers had intended. Riders were cautious about going too early and seemed intent on saving everything for the final assault of the Cauberg — the very thing that organizers were hoping to avoid by adding the lumpy finishing loop and placing the finish line 1.8km after the top of the emblematic climb.

Then the unexpected surge from Kreuziger caught everyone by surprise.

Despite believing he’s destined to win a grand tour, the Czech all-rounder has posted some impressive one-day results, including second at the Clásica San Sebastián in 2009 and fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011. Still, few were looking at him as a favorite Sunday. The odds-makers pegged him at 80-to-1, a good payout to anyone who put a tenner on him.

Several factors had to add up for Kreuziger’s move to stick.

First off, he was able to count on the insider knowledge of Dutch teammate Karsten Kroon, who lives and trains on these roads and knows them perhaps better than any active rider. Kreuziger called Kroon his “GPS,” and the veteran Dutchman told him where to make his move.

He attacked out of the breakaway with about 7km to go, just as it appeared things were under control. The main bunch seemed to ease up to catch its collective breath before hitting the Cauberg for the fourth and final time, and that momentary lull in the chase pried open the door ever so slightly for the Saxo-Tinkoff rider.

A determined, strong rider rarely can hold off a faster group, but it can happen if and when the group starts playing games.

Even the break was starting to play cat-and-mouse when Kreuziger decided to pounce. As everyone looked to BMC to lead the chase in the closing kilometers, Kreuziger kept pouring it on.

Simon Gerrans, who took a strong third place after his Orica-GreenEdge team placed Pieter Weening into the break to pressure their rivals, said by the time they hit the red kite, they knew they had left it too late.

Kreuziger was gone, like money, and he wasn’t coming back.

Tinkering with the Amstel Gold course didn’t make the race any more or less exciting on Sunday. It was the riders who dictated the action.

Race organizers across the globe are always looking for new ways to spice up their events, for reasons both honorable and practical, like stuffing their pockets with money if they can find a way to capitalize on what’s characterized as “progress.”

There’s pressure every year on organizers of Milano-Sanremo to add more climbs to the finale because some observers bemoan the all-too-familiar formula. So far they’ve resisted, and hopefully they will never ditch the Cipressa-Poggio run-in to the finish. The classicissima is always one of the most “predictable” of races, but it’s nearly impossible to know who will win until the final kick to the line.

Last year, Tour of Flanders owners turned their back on tradition to create a more fan-friendly, profitable finish to the Flemish standard. Is the race any better for it? Many say no.

At the end of the day, it’s the riders who make the race. Period. The strongest man wins — well, most of the time.

On Sunday, Kreuziger proved he was the strongest and the smartest. And the Amstel Gold Race organizers were glad for it.

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