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Scripts ripped up as favourites miss out at Amstel Gold Race

You don’t have to be the favourite to be the winner, you just have to take the risk. 

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Mathieu van der Poel. Annemiek van Vleuten. Tom Pidcock. Demi Vollering. On Sunday morning, most people would have guessed that at least one of those riders would be standing on the top step of the podium at the conclusion of the men’s and women’s Amstel Gold Races. Fast forward to this evening, and only one of them stepped onto the podium at all after two surprising winners refused to follow the pre-race script.

The Ardennes Classics have at times become somewhat predictable affairs. Philippe Gilbert’s four Amstel Gold Race wins and Anna van der Breggen winning La Flèche Wallonne point to races that always produce a good winner, but maybe don’t always live up to the drama that the cobbled classics that precede them often provide. Sunday’s races, however, were anything but predictable. 

It was an attacking day in the women’s race as pre-race favourites and Flanders victors SD Worx tried to make the race as hard as possible, as early as possible, albeit with an out-for-redemption Annemiek van Vleuten always hot on their heels. The story looked set: SD Worx would try to shake off the unshakeable Van Vleuten in a familiar battle that would probably go almost all the way to the line. And for the most part, everyone was staying on script. Heading into the base of the Cauberg — previously the finale for the men, still the women’s finish — Van Vleuten launched the attack she was always going to launch, having to turn to her climbing skills to try and dislodge the faster riders. As they often do, SD Worx stuck to her wheel, placing Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio in the elite group of seven that emerged on the climb. 

With 2km to go, everything was expected, but with 1.5 km to go Marta Cavalli’s attack was certainly not. You could tell watching the race that even the group weren’t expecting it — she goes from the back, none of them were watching her, they hesitate to chase her down — and it’s that moment of surprise that allowed her to force a gap and hold it to the finish.  A deserving winner, but not one many would have predicted until the moment she crossed the line.

In the hectic men’s race, the pivot from the script came with 20 km to go when Michal Kwiatkowski launched his attack. An 11-rider group had formed at the head of the race, with Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock on it. One on fine form and one looking to reverse last year’s narrowest of losses, Van der Poel and Pidcock were surely the two riders to beat, perhaps throwing in Kasper Asgreen for good measure. Everything had gone right for Mathieu van der Poel the last two weeks, why wouldn’t it today? Even when Kwiatkowski attacked, soon to be joined by Benoit Cosnefroy, it seemed like they should be chased down by the strong pursuing group. Give us the Van der Poel vs Pidcock we were expecting. But after the almost scene-perfect Tour of Flanders last weekend, Amstel Gold Race gave us a surprise as Kwiatkowski narrowly beat Cosnefroy into second, relegating the favourites into outside the podium positions.

On paper, Michal Kwiatkowski and Marta Cavalli’s wins were not hugely similar. Kwiatkowski is a former world champion and previous winner of Amstel, a rider who may not have been Plan A but was a threat as soon as he attacked. Cavalli is a great rider who has been on the cusp of a big victory like this, but was definitely more of an underdog when she launched an attack against some of the best riders in the peloton with 1.6km to go. What they have in common, though, is that neither of them were really meant to win.

When FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope confirmed that none of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Grace Brown or star of Flanders Brodie Chapman would be lining up for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, to many that signalled a significant blow to the team’s chances. Unlike teams like SD Worx or Trek-Segafredo, FDJ don’t have a huge wealth of top-level riders to call upon, so without three of their best, their team was weaker than they would have liked, but Marta Cavalli wasn’t. Maybe all she needed was a bit of freedom: no Uttrup Ludwig to look after, no expectations on her shoulders, no one marking her in the peloton. The script said it all went wrong for FDJ when Uttrup Ludwig pulled out, but Marta Cavalli made it all go right.

Michal Kwiatkowski’s win seems perfectly reasonable for the type of rider he is, but on paper it’s a diversion from his recent style. The Pole hasn’t won a one-day race since 2017, instead morphing himself into one of INEOS Grenadiers’ best domestiques, always there to help a teammate to victory. And that’s what he was expected to do today, support the prodigious Tom Pidcock to the win he so sorely wanted here last year, to help write that perfect comeback story. But as we have established, the stories had other ideas today.

These pre-determined scripts we, the viewers, and they, the riders, write for races like Amstel can kill the racing, dampen the drama. They force riders into corners based on outcomes they think are predestined, but are often far from it. Cavalli shouldn’t have attacked because surely Van Vleuten and Vollering would catch her. Kwiatkowski and Cosnefroy shouldn’t have tired themselves out being aggressive when they had an in-form Mathieu van der Poel behind, who would obviously beat them in a sprint. Too often we see riders fail to attack because they’re scared of losing, scared of taking with them a rider who everyone has decided is ‘better’, more content to roll home seventh in a group than risk exploding and falling out of the top 10. “I had nothing to lose,” Cavalli said at the finish, something we perhaps don’t hear said enough. 

Of course, strength and speed were a big part of what delivered Marta Cavalli and Michal Kwiatkowski to victory on Sunday, a factor we can’t ignore is bravery. Both riders made bold moves, against groups they weren’t the strongest in, and committed to them for the ultimate pay off. Both riders knew they weren’t meant to win today; they knew the scripts as well as those of us watching at home did, but they weren’t afraid to rip them up. It’s true that the winner is often the favourite, but you don’t have to be the favourite to be the winner, you just have to take the risk.