Maastricht > Valkenburg 249.4km
A race we’ve not properly seen since 2019, due to a cancellation in 2020 and a closed circuit in 2021. Thankfully, the real race is back, and it’s the usual mix of punchy climbs and narrow roads. Positioning is important in all races, but especially in this one, this is what makes it a constant battle in the final 50km. This also means we normally see quite a few crashes; the roads just aren’t wide enough to fit the whole peloton.
A sunny day in the Netherlands with temperatures sitting around 10 degrees.
The following climbs are tackled in the final 50km:
Loorberg – 1.3km at 5.8%.
Gulperberg – 900m at 5.3%
Kruisberg – 600m at 8.3%
Eyserbosweg – 1km at 8.7%
Fromberg – 1.2km at 3.8%
Keutenberg – 1.6km at 5.3%
Cauberg – 800m at 7.4%
Geulhemmerberg – 900m at 5%
Bemelerberg – 900m at 5.1%
The hardest climb is the Eyserbosweg, especially as the approach to it is technical. Whoever is on the front at the base of the climb must attack, it’s rude not to. The problem is the distance from the crest to the finish, just under 40km is a long way to go. The next opportunity to go is the early slopes of the Keuntenberg, it starts with a proper punch, and then we have the mighty Cauberg. Choosing the right moment to attack is very difficult, it all depends on how many domestiques are left in the bunch to chase.
The fashion now seems to open the race up as early as possible; it makes for brilliant viewing. We have several teams who want to do this, there’s no point simply waiting for van der Poel to attack, they must try and isolate him. Ineos, Bahrain and Jumbo-Visma will be the likely candidates to animate the race early. The objective is to drop the Alpecin domestiques, forcing van der Poel into using up some energy before the real action kicks off. The problem is that he arrives with a strong team. Okay, they don’t have flashy deluxe domestiques, but the likes of Bayer, Gogl, Oldani, Vermeersch, Sbaragli and De Bondt are solid pros. It’s going to be hard to get rid of all of them, but that is what teams must try to do.
Van der Poel starts as the overwhelming favourite, thanks to his excellent recent form. Here’s the worrying bit, he’s not even at his best yet. Due to his lack of racing, he’ll grow stronger with every race in this packed period. I expect him to be stronger than he was in Flanders and these climbs are perfect for him, and when you throw in the extra motivation of riding on home soil, you quickly start to think he’s unbeatable in this race, but cycling isn’t that straightforward.
I think we’ll see the race kick off nice and early and an elite group will form inside the final 40km. If teams have numbers in this front group, that’s when they need to try and put pressure on van der Poel and see if he can react.
Mathieu van der Poel – he’s got a massive chance to do something that will never be done again, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen, Flanders, Amstel, and Roubaix all in the same season. He’s only got 8 race days in his legs, it’s incredible to think he can win these races while being a little undercooked. His win here in 2019 is one of those moments, the ones that you think about and get a touch emotional. This is the only world tour race in the Netherlands, it means an awful lot to van der Poel. How he approaches the race will be interesting, will he try and do his usual and launch attacks from long range? I think we all hope he does.
Jumbo-Visma – the Dutch team, they want to win their home race. Without Van Aert, they found themselves on the backfoot in Flanders, we’ll have to see how they respond to that disappointment. The good news for them is they have an improving Tom Dumoulin in the team, supplementing the strength of Benoot and Laporte, two of the strongest riders in the opening part of the season. I think the punchy climbs suit these two extremely well, both are climbing brilliantly this year. Having three strong options will obviously give them an advantage, but they need all three to be on a great day to challenge van der Poel.
Bahrain – Mohorič, Teuns, Wright and Tratnik arrive as real options for the team. Last Sunday, we saw Wright, Teuns and Tratnik all perform at a very high level, they’ll be confident of carrying that form into this race. Mohorič wasn’t at his best in Flanders, but this is a race that suits him much better. Having so many strong riders means that Bahrain will be looking to constantly attack and make this a hard race.
Ineos – considering his recent issues, Pidcock did a great job in Flanders, he’ll hope to go even better here. Last year, he came within an inch of taking the win, it’s a race that suits him. They also bring Turner and van Baarle, two riders that can go deep into the finale of this race.
Valentin Madouas – his performance in Flanders certainly raised a few eyebrows, he seems to be back to his best after a disappointing 2021. This is a much better race for him, and with Stefan Küng also here, FDJ are in a good position.
Michael Valgren – his race, he was 2nd in 2016 and won in 2018. The early part of this year has been impacted by illness, but this is a period where I expect him to come good. Knowing the roads is very important in this race, his experience will give him an advantage over some of his rivals.
Andrea Bagioli – won the final stage in Catalunya, but was a little sick after the race, so his current level is a little unknown. On paper, this is a great race for the Italian, it’s the type of race he should be challenging to win. QuickStep have struggled throughout the classics, looking at their squad for this race, I don’t think they’ll be winning here.
Michael Matthews – looked good in Flanders, he was sprinting for a top 10 finish. The Aussie is very good in this race, it suits his characteristics perfectly. BikeExchange don’t have a particularly strong team at the race, they won’t be getting involved in controlling the day, they’ll have to hope the race comes back for a sprint.
Benoît Cosnefroy – the Frenchman loves these races; he should be challenging for the win. 2022 has been a little stop start for him, but his focus has always been the Ardennes, I’m expecting him to be on top of his game for the next couple of weeks. I think he’s one of the few who can follow van der Poel on the climbs.
Warren Barguil – a win in Tirreno and another in GP Miguel Indurain, the form is strong just now. A confident Barguil is a dangerous beast, he should be finishing in the top 10.
Currently in cycling we have a top table that only has 5 seats, and only one of those is doing this race. It’s got to be a win for Mathieu van der Poel.