The region of Limburg is no more part of the Ardennes as Roubaix is part of Flanders – but just as the finish town of the Hell of the North is readily associated with Flandrian exploits and Belgian-style cobblestones, the Amstel Gold Race often falls under the Ardennes umbrella, especially coming so soon after the Brabantse Pijl semi-classic.
It's no surprise then that the Amstel Gold Race is seen as the curtain-raiser to Ardennes Week, which continues with Wednesday's Fleche Wallonne until its climax next Sunday with the fourth Monument of the season, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Spaghetti'ing its way around the hills and valleys of southern Holland in an intricate web of road furniture-assisted mayhem, the 258km race is characterised by its succession of short and sharp leg-sapping climbs and is nowadays synonymous with the Cauberg, the climb whose fourth passage comes shortly before the finish.
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After the sprinter's classic that is Milan-San Remo and the two cobbled behemoths of Flanders and Roubaix, Amstel Gold marks the entry of the climbing and stage-racing specialists into the classics fray for what is a true puncheur's paradise of a race.
Amstel Gold Race
Image credit: Eurosport
History: Dutch delight
It's hardly the pre-pubescent adolescent that is Strade Bianche but the Amstel Gold is no grizzled grown-up. Only established in 1966, the year England won the World Cup and France's Lucien Aimar ended the Jacques Anquetil era by pipping Dutchman Jan Janssen in the Tour de France, the Amstel Gold was created as the Dutch answer to the Italian, French and Belgian monuments.
Although it was a Frenchman, Jean Stablinsky, who took the first edition, Dutch riders have historically proven the most successful entity, scooping 17 of 50 victories to date, some five more than nearest rivals, Belgium. Of course, recent history has been cruel: while we don't have to look quite as far for a victory as we do on the 'Dutch Mountain' of Alpe d'Huez, a fruitless streak stretching back to Erik Dekker's win in 2001 has very much kept the Amstel on ice, so to speak.
Erik Dekker 2006 im Rabobank-Trikot
Image credit: Eurosport
As can be expected from a nation that brought us Dutch Corner, the Amstel Gold Race is one of the noisiest one-day races of the calendar, with the area around the Cauberg climb effectively one huge party zone before, during and after the spectacle.
Thanks to his bullish run in the late 70s and early 80s, Dutchman Jan Raas leads the historical standings with five wins – a record that won't be equalled any time soon unless Belgian Philippe Gilbert pulls his finger out (not literally, given the week he's had) and delivers a couple more wins out the bag before retirement.
Route: hills and more hills
Coming at a rate of one every seven kilometres, the 34 hills that give the Amstel Gold its Toblerone-esque profile range between 500m and three kilometres long, and many of them are tackled two, three, sometimes four times during the 258km race.
Starting in Maastrict, the confusing squiggle of a route (which includes a brief foray into Germany) dances around the countryside on narrow roads and cuts through suburban areas peppered with the kind of road furniture designed to keep local drivers and pedestrians safe, but hardly conducive to bike racing.
Crashes and climbs are not the only obstacles – potential or real – separating the riders from a good ride and a DNF: the winds in the area are notoriously strong and occasionally riders can experience a headwind on one ascent and then a tailwind on the same climb less than an hour later.
The Cauberg is the most famous of those climbs, although the first two passages are often about as dramatic as an episode of Emmerdale (in the British soap's sedate, pre-airplane crash guise). But then things get feisty with the third, penultimate ascent marking the start of the final circuit with 21km remaining. The final ascent often proves decisive – and although the 1.3km climb only has an average gradient of 5% it does feature a 12% ramp where weary legs can implode at the business end of a competitive race.
All in all, it's a technically demanding course that attracts crashes like a carcass attracts flies – a race where local knowledge is primordial for survival, let alone competitiveness. That said, you're only going to win it if you have the requisite qualities: an ability to climb fast and sprint even quicker.
As for the jumbled route, British legend Robert Millar once remarked that it was probably designed that way to ensure it passed every one of the sponsors' outlets in the region.
Cauberg controversy or unpredictable finale?
Between 2003 and 2012 the finish was at the top of the Cauberg climb but a redesign saw the finish move to the hamlet of Berg en Terblijt, 1.8km from the summit, to mirror the conclusion of the 2012 world championships in Valkenburg. Many believe the move pointless because little can happen over the best part of 2,000 flat metres after such an explosive ascent.
But there's certainly a case in support of the change if you look at the very contrasting finales we have witnessed since 2013, when Czech climber Roman Kreuziger managed to stay clear after being part of a break and soloed to victory by 22 seconds. Gilbert won the next edition by surging clear on the Cauberg – just as he did in the world championships six months earlier – while last year saw the rainbow jersey of Michal Kwiatkowski sprint to victory in an 18-man group.
So, the past three years have yielded three very different kinds of win. Here's to yet more unpredictability.
Image credit: Eurosport
Who to watch
Well, they bungled the cobbled classics so perhaps Etixx-QuickStep can get some salvation in the Ardennes. The Belgian team come with an in-form leading duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Petr Vakoc just days after the former set up the latter for a splendid win in Brabantse Pijl.
As for BMC, they will be working along similar lines but with an entirely different generation as old timer Samuel Sanchez tees up Philippe Gilbert on the Cauberg for his fourth win. That said, don't be surprised is the Belgian doesn't even make it to the start: following a training incident involving a collision with a drunk driver, a scuffle, and a broken finger, Gilbert this week had a metal rod inserted into his digit, so merely completing a bike race would be a big ask.
Team Sky are a better option with the likes of Sergio Henao and Peter Kennaugh working for their leader, the defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski. The Pole has been in solid form although he could meet his match in a strong Orica-GreenEdge team that has two cards to play in Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans.
Simon Gerrans (Orica)
Image credit: AFP
Katusha will send their Ardennes specialist Joaquim Rodriguez along, although it will be intersting to see how the veteran fares without fellow Spaniard Dani Moreno, who is now at Movistar. Norwegian national champion Edvald Boasson Hagen has been in the kind of form for Dimension Data that merits a win at some point, while the likes of Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Simon Clarke (Cannondale), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) and Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2R-La Mondiale) could get in the mix.
As for the home fans – besides the lads at Roompot-Oranje Peloton, they'll only really have Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) to cheer on, and neither look quite capable of winning such an explosive race.
Who won't be there
Fifth last year, BMC's Greg Van Avermaet is still recovering from his injuries sustained in the Tour of Flanders. Last year's King of the Ardennes, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, is skipping Amstel Gold – the only of the three races he has never won – in favour of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon ahead of his tilt at the Giro d'Italia in May.
Ireland's Dan Martin won't feature but will be part of the Etixx-QuickStep selection for the Fleche and Liege. But do look out for Fabio Aru – the Sardinian stage racer is making a rare classics appearance for Astana.
***** Matthews, Kwiatkowski
**** Vakoc, Boasson Hagen, Henao, Costa
*** Gilbert, Rodriguez, Alaphilippe, Gerrans
** Sanchez, Gallopin, McCarthy, Gasparotto, Clarke
* Dumoulin, Barguil, Gesink, Vuillermoz, Mollema
The Amstel Gold Race will be shown live on Eurosport and the Eurosport Player from 13:00 GMT on Sunday 17th April
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