Roman Kreuziger surprised both fans and rivals with a stinging solo attack with 7km to go in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race that enabled him to time-trial his way to his first classics victory. But should we have been that surprised? And what confluence of events conspired in his favour on a day when many were predicting another head-to-head showdown between Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert, who had occupied the top two steps of the podium at Brabantse Pijl just four days previously?
Let’s examine the evidence.
Amstel Gold is a tough race, even more so this year with an adjusted parcours which inserted an additional (fourth) climb up the fearsome Cauberg (just 800 metres, but at a leg-breaking 12%). Its last two ascents were separated by less than 20km, before a new 1.8km flat run-in to the finish line.
In total, the 2013 edition featured 33 climbs on its 251km parcours with around 3,400 metres’ worth of climbing. That’s a number which would not look out of place on an Alpine or Pyrenean grand tour stage.
Four steps to victory
1. Kreuziger is a much better rider than many people realise. There is a widely held and not entirely untrue perception that Kreuziger failed during his two-year stint at Astana. This is largely the result of his poor performance as team leader at last year’s Giro d’Italia, where he seemed to lose time on virtually every major stage and finished almost 20 minutes down on the winner, Ryder Hesjedal.
And yet, despite still being only 26, his palmares is impressive. In his first year with Astana he finished sixth at the Giro (later upgraded to fifth). Before that, while with Liquigas, he finished twice in the top ten at the Tour de France. He has also won major stage races at the Tours de Romandie and Suisse. And although Sunday’s victory was his first at a classic, he had previously recorded a second place at San Sebastian and top fives at both Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Like many stage racers, he prefers the long, grinding climbs to the short, sharp ones like the Cauberg, but by being out in front he was able to tackle the final climb at his own pace as part of what amounted to a 7km time trial. So was his victory unexpected? Yes. A complete surprise in the manner of Enrico Gasparotto’s last year? No.
2. A perfectly timed attack and a disorganised chase (I). With all the breaks swept up as the race entered the final 15km, a smoothly pedalling Kreuziger was conspicuous by his constant presence on the front – ready to cover any moves or make one of his own. When an attack did finally stick, the Czech made sure he was in it. Over the top of the penultimate climb of the Bemelerberg with 8km left Kreuziger looked keen to force the pace, but he waited for a minute until the road flattened and the attention of his four fellow break-mates slackened as they sought a breather ahead of the Cauberg. Off he went, and as his rivals all looked at each other he simply rode away from them.
If the other four had organised themselves quickly and worked together they could have caught the Saxo-Tinkoff rider. But there was no co-operation as they instead focussed on attacking each other, settling into a slow-quick-slow-quick rhythm which allowed the gap to grow.
Was Kreuziger’s attack a fortunate piece of timing? Yes and no. Of course, there needs to be an element of luck for a single rider to outwit multiple rivals. However, his timing was exquisite, picking a moment where those around him had allowed their guard to drop for a moment on the last ‘easy’ stretch of road before the finish, and at a time when the depleted peloton behind was uncertain whether to stick or twist. But it was also no coincidence when he chose to refer to teammate Karsten Kroon – a Dutch rider on Dutch roads – as “our GPS”. I suspect that a solo attack at this very point – remembering that any pre-race plans would have been hatched with the intention of avoiding a final sprint against Peter Sagan – was one of a small number of planned scenarios aided by a little local knowledge. It turned out to be the perfect plan.
3. Gilbert’s crash (and others). During classics races, energy conservation is critical. And when Philippe Gilbert was caught up in the day’s most significant crash with more than 90km remaining, which effectively scuppered the world champion’s hopes of victory. Gilbert was unscathed but in the ensuing chaos it took seemingly forever – certainly more than a minute – for the BMC team car to reach him, replace his bike and send him on his way.
Why did it take so long? Two reasons. Firstly, the crash took place near the head of the peloton – Gilbert was in the front 20-25 – and secondly the crash took place on a narrow rural road. This meant team cars had to wait for over 150 riders to slowly work their way around the crash before reaching affected riders. At least BMC’s car was relatively near the front of the motorcade, as team cars follow the peloton in WorldTour ranking order and BMC were seventh out of 19 going into the race. If he had been, say, a Vacansoleil (18th) or Argos-Shimano (19th) rider, he would have been delayed by at least another 30 seconds.
Up ahead Blanco rather uncharitably upped the tempo to try to put some of their rivals out of contention. With those most delayed by the crash rejoining in twos and threes, it meant a long, hard chase back for the likes of Gilbert – not helped by it being a windy day – depleting energy reserves for the finish. So although Gilbert was able to surge thrillingly forward on the Cauberg, it was inevitable that he would pop at some point – which was exactly what seemed to occur as he approached the flamme rouge.
Gilbert wasn’t the only big contender to be affected by crashes. Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler was caught up in the same incident, breaking his collarbone. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) abandoned following a later accident. And Sky’s Sergio Henao struggled on after suffering a particularly nasty-looking gashed leg, finishing a remarkable sixth under the circumstances.
4. A disorganised chase (II). Kreuziger’s advantage at the foot of the Cauberg – over 30 seconds on the main peloton – was significant but not insurmountable. However, when the rainbow jersey attacked only Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) could follow, and even then it took a huge effort to keep Gilbert in sight and then finally reel him in under the kilometre banner just as he was beginning to tire.
An exhausted Gilbert was unwilling to drag the other two to the line, and as the trio played cat-and-mouse with each other they were caught from behind just as they wound up for the final sprint. They lost so much momentum that Kreuziger even extended his advantage, from around 13 seconds under the flamme rouge to 22 at the finish.
Could Gilbert, Valverde and Gerrans have overhauled Kreuziger had they accelerated together more smoothly on the Cauberg and then cooperated over the plateau? Possibly, possibly not – but we will never know. As it was, each was so determined not to be beaten by the others that they guaranteed Kreuziger a fully deserved victory – a grand example of he who dares wins.
And this is how it all unfolded: