Your new favorite race: Amstel Gold

Amstel Gold Race still has its great title sponsor (a brewery!), but the route is way different this year. Ardennes week is upon us.

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Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.

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Your new favorite race: Amstel Gold Race, April 16

Why should you care about this race? For starters, this race is named after a beer — awesome. Amstel has been the title sponsor of this one-day since the beginning in 1966, so I’ll cut the brewery a little slack for making a bland Euro lager. As for the race itself, you should care because this is the kick-off for three hilly classics, generically referred to as the Ardennes. Is Amstel actually raced in the Ardennes? No, it’s in Limburg, Netherlands, which sits just to the northeast of the Ardennes region. The race’s lumpy 258-kilometer route features the same type of short, punchy climbs as we see at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The guys with the fastest uphill finish win Amstel and the other races, making these three a showcase of uphill accelerations.

Most dramatic edition in recent memory? For a few years now, Amstel has been decided in a reduced-bunch sprint at the top of the Cauberg climb (more on that in a moment), which doesn’t strike me as the most dramatic way to end a race, despite the delicious tension thats starts with 2km to go. In 2016, Enrico Gasparotto kicked out of the group at the crest of the hill and held on to the finish, a great result for his Pro Continental Wanty-Groupe Gobert team.

That was a good year, but let’s go back to 2013 for an even more dramatic edition, which saw a group of six riders break clear with about 20km to go and catch a lone leader, Igor Astarloa, who had attacked after only 12km that day. Roman Kreuziger attacked the break with 7km to go. All the while, the peloton was mere seconds behind. As the Cauberg began, Amstel ace Philippe Gilbert, wearing the rainbow world champion’s jersey he won on that very climb the year prior, unleashed a devastating attack out of the peloton, followed by Alejandro Valverde. Would Kreuziger crack? Could the world champ win his third Amstel Gold Race? Nope. The Czech had just enough advantage to solo to victory, and Valverde picked Gilbert’s pocket at the line for second place.

Your race’s defining feature: Traditionally, the Cauberg climb served as Amstel’s punctuation mark. Depending on where you mark the start and finish, its about a 1.5km climb averaging 4.7 percent with a max gradient of 12 percent. As such, Amstel Gold Race is often characterized by cautious racing in the final 20km as favorites follow wheels, waiting for one last sprint. We can still say the Cauberg is the face of Amstel Gold Race, but the race will have a very different look for 2017.

But the thing is … The Cauberg is not the finish climb for the 2017 men’s race! Instead, in the final circuit of racing, the peloton will climb the hill one last time (of three passages) with 19km to the finish. Is this blasphemy or a clever way to spice up the tactics in the final 30 minutes of racing? American Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) says, “I don’t know; honestly, it’s hard to say how it will play out. It could go either way. Could be just awful for the race, or it could open it up and make it more aggressive. We could see some real action.” Let’s hope it is the latter.

Ladies first? Women’s WorldTour racing is back in action Sunday at Amstel, and unlike the men, their peloton will face the traditional hilltop finish on the Cauberg after 121km. This is also the first year that organizers are putting on a pro women’s race, so it’s an opportunity for top climbers like two-time Flèche Wallonne winner Anna van der Breggen to make history.

Who are you betting your beer money on this year? It seems like this is the year for the ageless Alejandro Valverde to tick items off of his “bucket list.” Vuelta al Pais Vasco overall title? Yep, wrapped that one up with a bow last Saturday. Amstel Gold Race? The canny climber has never won this one, so he might as well take care of it on Sunday. My only reservation is that the route change could result in a larger group coming to the finish sprint, which isn’t always in Valverde’s favor. In the women’s race, I think it’s time for Boels-Dolmans to get its season on track with a win, and van der Breggen is on form to do it, having just finished second overall and taking a time trial stage win at the Healthy Ageing Tour (formerly the Energiewacht Tour).

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