On Sunday afternoon, on the outskirts of Valkenburg in the Netherlands’ hilly south, an exhausted Benoît Cosnefroy celebrated joyfully with his AG2R Citröen teammates and staff. By beating Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) in a two-up sprint at the end of the Amstel Gold Race, the Frenchman had just taken the biggest win of his career. Or so he thought.
Moments later, race commissioners overturned their original decision. A finish-line photo showed that it was in fact Kwiatkowski who had thrust his front tire across the line first. Cosnefroy’s joy turned to understandable disappointment, while Kwiatkowski’s frustration at coming so close to his first win in years turned to unexpected elation.
And with that, two consecutive editions of the men’s Amstel Gold Race had been decided by a finish line photo in dramatic and controversial circumstances. Not just that, but in the edition that preceded those two, we witnessed perhaps the single most thrilling finish to a bike race in the modern era.
Indeed, most recent editions of the men’s Amstel Gold Race* have been defined by unpredictable, aggressive racing, with victory coming to those willing to go on the attack.
So what is it about the Amstel Gold Race in recent times? Why have the past few editions been so exciting?
(*The women’s Amstel Gold Race has also been fantastic since it was revived in 2017. Check out the 2019 edition for a great example. But the route for the women’s race is a little different to the men’s and this article focuses only on the men’s event and changes to its course.)
To understand the nature of the present-day Amstel Gold Race, we need to cast our minds back half a decade. In the lead-up to the 2017 men’s event, race organizers felt they had to make a change. In their eyes, the race had become too predictable. Too much of the outcome hinged on the legendary and steep final climb: the Cauberg (800 m at 12%).
In 2013, the finish had been moved from the top of the Cauberg (where it had been since 2003) to Valkenburg, roughly 2 km down the road. But in the organisers’ view, the Cauberg was still having too much of a say. The race was too much about who was strongest on the Cauberg.
And so they made a change. They removed the iconic Cauberg from its position as the race’s final climb.
“By deleting the last climb of the Cauberg from our race we hope to create a more open race,” course director Leo van Vliet said at the time, “which leads to more potential winners and the attacking riders will have more luck.”
The finish would be kept in the same place, but with the Cauberg gone, it would be the Geulhemmerberg (970 m at 7.9%) and the Bemelerberg (900 m at 7%) that would be the day’s final climbs. Neither was as tough as the Cauberg, and with 6.5 km from the top of the final climb to the finish, it would be less a question of who was strongest up the final ascent.
Those changes to the route in 2017 delivered instant change. A different way of winning, if not a different winner.
On the Bemelerberg, the day’s new final climb, three-time winner Philippe Gilbert and 2015 winner Kwiatkowski got away and stayed clear to the finish. Gilbert bested Kwiatkowski in the sprint to put himself second on the event’s all-time winners list.
Where Gilbert’s three previous wins had all been a case of him being the best on the Cauberg, this win required something different – something a little more adventurous. A little more risky.
In 2018, race organizers made a further change to the route. Not in response to Gilbert’s fourth win exactly, but to push the race even further away from the reduced bunch sprint they were seemingly keen to avoid. To give opportunistic riders even more of a chance.
The final climbs would stay the same, as would the finish, but rather than following wide roads for the final 16 km, the riders were forced onto much narrower roads on their way back to Valkenburg. Positioning would be crucial.
“In 2017 we saw that a simple change in the route led to a more attractive race,” course director Van Vliet said. “With this new change the contenders for the victory have to find a good position before they enter the final or [have] already left the bunch for an attack.”
And so in 2018, in another edition full of aggressive racing, eight riders made it to the front group at the top of the Bemelerberg, including fast finishers Peter Sagan and Alejandro Valverde. It would take two, hard, well-timed attacks from Michael Valgren to get clear of that group, with only a couple others able to follow him. The Dane took a stirring win in a two-up sprint ahead of Roman Kreuziger.
In 2019, the route stayed the same for the first time in several years. It produced a race finish that’s unlikely to be forgotten by those fortunate enough to witness it. Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, on debut in his country’s biggest race, wearing the white, red, and blue of national champion, put in a ride for the ages.
With the race again heavily fragmented in the closing stages, and Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang seemingly riding away to contest the win, Van der Poel dragged a chase group across a gap that, the leaders were told, was still 40 seconds with 3 km to go. Whether he was helped by some poor communication regarding time gaps or not, Van der Poel’s tenacity and incredible strength saw him reach the front of the race mid-final-sprint, before surging to one of the great victories.
After the 2020 edition was lost to the maelstrom of COVID-19, the Amstel Gold Race returned in 2021 with another heart-stopping finish. In a race that was closed to fans and traded a meandering countryside route for a lapse of a local circuit, another aggressive, unpredictable race unfolded.
Tom Pidcock, Wout van Aert, and Max Schachmann forged clear from an already small lead group with 12.5 km to go, with the trio holding off the chase to the line. That very line itself would become the source of controversy when a still image from the finish-line video showed Pidcock’s wheel crossing first, while a photo seemed to show Van Aert’s. Van Aert was awarded the narrowest of wins in a result that reverberated around the cycling world for many days to come.
Which brings us back to Sunday’s 2022 edition; another edition full of stinging attacks that left the peloton splintered around the Dutch countryside. And all of it capped off by that bizarre photo finish.
So, to return to our initial question: why is it that the Amstel Gold Race seems to be producing such entertaining racing in recent years?
It’s worth considering that our current perspective of the Amstel Gold Race – as a race where amazing stuff happens – has been influenced by the unusual events of the past few editions. Maybe the confluence of Van der Poel’s brilliance, and the coincidence of two bizarre photo-finishes in consecutive years has inflated our sense of just how good a race this is.
But there’s more to it than that. I’d argue that what we’ve been seeing since 2017 is the race’s essential nature being revealed in a new and exciting way.
Amstel Gold is a race famous for having more twists and turns than any other event on the calendar. Where a rider or group that gets away can quickly be out of sight, giving them something of an advantage over anyone chasing. It’s a race that’s seemingly always up or down, offering a multitude of possible launch pads for those willing to go on the attack.
In short, it’s a race that suits the ambitious and the opportunistic. And it’s arguably always been that way.
In fact, you could argue that organizers were a little harsh in labeling their race too predictable ahead of the 2017 changes. In the six years prior to 2017, for example, we saw solo winners, a two-up sprint, a three-up sprint, and even a reduced-bunch sprint from a group of 17 (when Kwiatkowski won in 2015).
And there are certainly more predictable races on the calendar; races more defined by their final climbs. Nearby Flèche Wallonne is perhaps chief among them – the Belgian race traditionally falls just days after Amstel and is almost inevitably won by whoever is strongest on the race-ending Mur de Huy.
But with Amstel, perhaps the removal of the Cauberg – and the introduction of narrower roads in the finale – has helped the race’s true nature to shine through even more clearly. Perhaps, just as the organizers intended, it’s meant that the race is now far less about waiting for that final climb, and more about aggressive, instinctual, spur-of-the-moment racing.
While the Bemelerberg has helped decide races since becoming the final climb in 2017, it seems harder now to save everything for that final ascent than it was at the Amstel of old. Since 2017, winning the Amstel Gold Race seems to require a willingness to go on the attack, or at the very least, to roll the dice and throw everything at following what could be the right move from someone else.
The upshot is this: in the five editions of the men’s Amstel Gold Race since the Cauberg was removed as the final climb, we’re yet to be disappointed. Far from it. The organizers took a significant risk by removing such an iconic, race-defining feature as the Cauberg finale, but five years on, it seems pretty clear that decision was a good one.