Amstel Gold Race 2016: The Little Team That Could

It was always going to be a big ask for Amstel Gold Race to match the heroics and sheer drama of the Cobbled Classics. The last time we’d see a Cancellara charge on the pavé – check. Sagan finally landing a monument, and in the Rainbow Stripes – natch. The plucky journeyman finally having his one great day in the sun – step forward, Matt Hayman.

The Ardennes Classics lack the jockeying for position, the cut and thrust, of the cobbles. They’re a war of attrition with a relentless repetition of a series of short, sharp, leg sapping climbs. The comparatively beefy bodies of the cobble specialists give way to the more waif like climbers for whom the bergs are their playground. Amstel Gold 2016 featured 34 of them, including four climbs of the Cauberg that typically produces the eventual race winner.

This year was no exception. Despite a rash of crashes – including the particularly horrific moment when Trek’s Fabio Felline pitched headfirst over his handlebars in the neutral zone, breaking his nose and fracturing his skull – it was business as usual with Team Sky making the pace for most of the 258km race in pursuit of the eleven man break of the day. With defending champion Michal Kwiatowski in the squad, it was another chance for the UK team to pop their Classics cherry but Kwiatowski fell short, struggling over the final climbs and never in contention for the finale.

BMC’s Philippe Gilbert usually starts as favourite by default – the three time winner has the best record in the race in the current peloton. But a bizarre altercation with a pair of drunks whilst out on a training ride left the Belgian with a broken finger held together by metal pins. The knock on effect to his riding position and consequent lack of pedal power saw Gilbert flounder home in 81st, his worst ever finish. Jan Raas, the record holder with five wins, can rest easy for another year.

It wasn’t to be Edvald Boassen Hagen’s race either – or Tom Dumoulin’s. The Dutch star could be seen toiling over the final climbs with the expectations and disappointments of a nation resting on his shoulders – it’s now fifteen years since Erik Dekker pipped Lance Armstrong on the finish line.

Into the vacuum stepped first Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger, the 2013 winner, then Tim Wellens. The 24 year old Lotto-Soudal rider is never afraid of a buccaneering attack and blew past the man in hi vis before establishing a 15” lead at the foot of the Cauberg. He’d tried a similar move at Brabantse Pijl earlier in the week – it failed there and it was doomed to fail again as Orica Greenedge drove the chase to keep Michael Matthews hopes of a first Classics win alive.

But this Classics season has thrown up a clutch of surprises – and one team that has ridden out of their collective skins since the tragic events of Gent-Wevelgem. First Dimitri Claeys gritted his teeth and sprinted his heart out for a ninth place in Flanders. A week later Frederick Backaert made it into the break of the day at Paris-Roubaix.  Then Enrico Gasparotto took 2nd at Brabantse Pijl, showing the kind of form that brought him the win at Amstel Gold in 2012.

Attacking on the Cauberg, the Italian forged a decent gap and it was left to Tinkoff’s Danish discovery Michael Valgren – at 24 a full decade younger than Gasparotto – to bridge across and track the Wanty rider all the way to the line. It was a breakthrough ride for Valgren, but Gasparotto wasn’t to be denied. Using all his race craft and experience, it was the Italian rider who crossed the line first, his fingers pinting to the sky, his eyes raised heavenwards. Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CDF) sprinted hard out of the chasing pack for his first Classics podium to round out a great finish for the Italians.

“This victory is for Antoine” Gasparotto said simply in his post-race press conference. “On Saturday, Antoine’s wife came to meet us at our hotel. It was one of the most emotional days of my life.” Praising his team for the huge amount of work they’d done during the race, the Italian added “We were extremely motivated.”  #RideforAntoine has become Wanty’s rallying cry and they have honoured their lost teammate in the best way possible – by attacking the Classics with guts, courage and heart and delivering a famous victory.

Overall: My take on the Ardennes Classics has always been ‘nice finishes, shame about the race’. Yes, I get that they’re attritional but give me the puncheurs on the pave any day. Unfortunately, this year’s AGR ran true to form. Roll on the promised women’s race.

Best bit: Gasparotto’s victory salute – I’m a sucker for the sentimentality of professional cycling where grown men weep, and so do I

Worst bit: the crunch of bone on tarmac and the gasp of the crowd as Felline took a header over his handlebars. Heal fast, Fabio

Ride of the day: It’s always good to see Wellens take the bull by the horns – he animated what had been a fairly dull day – but, as a committed Francophile, Fabien Grellier’s turn in the break of the day was notable. Another 21 year old neo-pro showing some chops in the World Tour.

Fail of the day: Sky had the strength but not the staying power again. Ian Stannard is a beast but a one man Classics team he aint.  As for Orica Greenedge, some incredibly strong riding over the finale by Albasini and Hayman, fresh from his Paris-Roubaix heroics, but ultimately all for nothing. I was surprised  to see them let the gap go to Gasparotto – maybe pre-race favourite Michael Matthews didn’t think it would stick? Or maybe he was just wary of being ‘Gilberted’ like he was last year. DS Matt White said he simply didn’t have the legs. Who knows? But Bling’s day in the sun will surely come.

Scores on the doors: after enthralling editions of both cobbled Classics – Paris-Roubaix start to finish? You are spoiling us ASO – Amstel Gold was always going to have a tough time matching up to the sheer drama of the cobbles and the last hurrah of fan fave Fabian Cancellara. Maybe the parcours needs another tweak, but this was more like watching one of those rinse and repeat dull, dull, dull Grand Tour stages than some proper balls to the wall, one day racing. Amstel Gold Race – must try harder.

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