Photo-Finish Drama Returns at Amstel Gold
Breaking down the thrilling finale of a slow-burn one-day race
It appeared to be deja-vu-all-over-again for Wout van Aert, but unlike Wednesday at De Brabantse Pijl, he was able to hold off a surging Tom Pidcock and fading Max Schachmann in a three-rider sprint to win Amstel Gold. The thrilling finish capped off a slow-burn race that took place over a 17-kilometer circuit, instead of the usual sprawling course. Things heated up when Van Aert attacked and split up the race the final time over the famous Cauberg climb with 18km-to-go. This move teased out an elite selection of riders, which was whittled down even further when Pidcock attacked 12km-to-go and brought Max Schachmann and Van Aert with him.
This acceleration ended up producing the winning move, despite the trio looking as though they could be mowed down by the chasing group inside the final few hundred meters. To avoid this fate, Van Aert opened up his sprint early after being forced to the front by the savvier Pidcock, who came around with a late surge and appeared to have the race won on the line. But after an unusually long and strange period of purgatory, the photo-finish was finally revealed, which revealed Van Aert taking the win by less than a tire’s width to end his Jumbo team’s 20-year winless drought at the race.
How It Happened:
130km-to-go: Movistar massing at the front for Valverde. They tend to do these show-of-strengths early in one-day races, only to collapse when things get tough later on.
113km: Alaphilippee is relaxing at the back, which shows how little he is concerned about the race kicking off anytime soon and how silly it is for Movistar to be burning matches at the front.
66km: Qhubeka-Assos being way too aggressive on this ascent of the Cauberg. They launch a move, but drop themselves. This is why you want to be attentive and at the front when things get hot, but not actually be the one on the front telegraphing moves
40km: Jumbo and Movistar have both miss a serious move due to positioning mistakes. Jumbo is using a lot of energy to close it down, but Movistar isn’t able to contribute much since they burned themselves out earlier
18km: Roglic drops/jams his chain on the final ascent of the Cauberg and is out of the race. Wout attacks at the front and takes Alaphilippe, Pidcock, and Matthews.
16.8km: After the dust settles, Ineos has numbers in this lead group with Pidcock, Carapaz, and Kwiatkowski. I just wonder why Wout is doing this? He doesn’t need to whittle down the group and is just isolating himself with the strongest teams in the race.
14km: Kwio attacks and Wout has to look around for help. Of course, there is little to be had since Ineos has numbers, Valverde will never help anyone (this isn’t a slight at him, it’s how he’s had so much success in his career), and Schachmann and Matthews aren’t crazy enough to help out. This shows the tough position he has put himself in.
13km: Of course, as soon as they hit the next climb, Schachmann attacks and Pidcock follows. Wout is stuck behind and forced to chase.
Alaphilippe is struggling in a chasing group behind while his teammate, Mauri Vansevenant, who was caught up in an earlier crash, comes blowing by him like he is standing hill. It is shocking to see Alaphilippe out-Alaphilipped by a rider on his own team.
12.7km: My broadcast feed doesn’t show it, but Wout has gone thermonuclear over the top of the climb to bridge up to Schachmann and Pidcock, who then absolutely throttles it over the top and blows everyone away except Wout and Schachmann. Once again, I’m wondering why? He has just dropped his two teammates and taken away his biggest advantage against these other two riders.
12.2km: Pidcock is still driving hard while Wout has refused to pull through so far, but once he looks back and sees his big the gap has gotten, he immediately comes through for a hard turn. This is perfect for him since it solves his biggest problem of being outnumbered by an incredibly strong Ineos team.
11.2km: The gap from the three leaders back to the chase group is 15-seconds. The race is over for anyone not named Schachmann, Van Aert, or Pidcock.
10.9km: Mauri is drilling it on the front of the chase group for Alaphilippe. Despite his impressive performance, he isn’t as strong as the three combined leaders and the lead has gone out to 19-seconds.
7km: Pidcock is driving hard to keep this gap from coming down, while Van Aert, knowing he is outnumbered by Pidcock’s teammates if it comes back together, is happy to take as many turns as Pidcock asks for. This shows the power of a team having numbers at the end of the race.
4km: The gap has come down, but only to 15-seconds, which shows how well the three leaders are working together. One major advantage they have is that a rider like Schachmann gets nothing if this race comes back together, so he is more than happy to chip in with generous pulls to ensure a minimum result of third place.
2km: If Schachmann wants to win, he has to attack before the final km, and sure enough, he tries a move on a small climb here. It is an extremely strong attack, but he can’t distance Pidcock and Van Aert, since neither has shown even the slightest bit of weakness so far.
1.7km: Tim Wellens attacks from the chase group in an attempt to bridge up to the leaders. It looks like it could work, but in my mind, this shows the bad habit Wellens has of missing the key moves and then making big moves with a high chance of failure but look good on camera. This is the exact opposite of a rider like Schachmann, who rarely executes performative attacks but rarely misses a move when he is on a good day.
600m: Pidcock knows he has to get off the front ASAP and slows up to call Wout’s bluff and force him to the front. Equally impressive is how he then pushes Schachmann off Wout’s wheel to ensure he has a clean run at the sprint after Wout opens things up early.
400m: Wout is in a really difficult spot here (and the exact same one from Wednesday). The chase group is closing in quickly but it is too early to start his sprint. He has to balance sitting tight and waiting with keeping the pace high enough to avoid being caught and losing everything.
200m: With the chase group within touching distance, Wout knows he has to launch now. He opens up his sprint and appears to have the race won, until, in almost an exact replay of Wednesday, Pidcock starts coming around him.
Finish: Despite Pidcock executing a better bike throw and appearing to win it at the line, and Van Aert is declared the winner.
But if we look at the official finish-line frame-by-frame photo, it does appear to show some sort of distance between their tires, and despite the weird delay, the appearance of an earlier photo-finish that looked like an unambiguous tie, and odd handling of the situation by the UCI race jury, it seems Van Aert has clearly won the race (but this is only if you trust that this frame is from the moment they crossed the finish line).
Despite allowing the sprint to be wound down to a crawl in the final few hundred meters, which benefitted Pidcock, Van Aert gets a big win for himself and his Jumbo team (breaking the team’s 20-year streak of not winning here). He becomes only the third-ever rider to win Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold in the same season. The other two riders to accomplish this are Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens, which puts him in an extremely select company.
Pidcock looked incredible in the final 30-kilometers, and other than dropping two teammates in the final 15kms, rarely put a foot wrong. Second place at Amstel is a big result for a 21-year-old rookie and hints at greater things to come.
What impressed me the most was his composure and willingness to risk the win to push Van Aert to the front in the final kilometer. I would expect someone of that age and experience level to be too hungry for the win and end up doing too much work, but it was actually the contrary. He has a ‘race to win and nothing else’ attitude, which he used to win De Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday and get within millimeters of a WorldTour win on Sunday.
Even though Pidcock got 2nd (or won depending on your vantage point) a major one-day race at 21-years-old, Mauri Vansevenant might be the breakout young rider of the day. The 21-year-old Deceuninck - QuickStep rider put on a stunning display of explosiveness and strength to chase back onto the lead group after a crash and then subsequently get straight to the front to work for his team leader. The recovery and chase were reminiscent of Mathieu van der Poel’s performance at the 2019 Tour of Flanders.
The abridged course, with the repeated circuit, wasn’t as visually dynamic as the usual route, but it produced a great final 30-minutes of racing, which frankly, the normal Amstel route can often fail to do. While it was similar to the Valkenburg circuit used in the 2012 World Championships, it produced a better race, most likely due to placing the Cauberg further from the finish, which incentivized riders to attack from further out instead of sitting in and waiting for the final climb.
While Pidcock played the finale perfectly, I was surprised to see Van Aert get pushed to the front so easily in the final few hundred kilometers, especially considering this is exactly how he was beaten by Pidcock at De Brabantse Pijl.
A potential answer for his willingness to take the front is that Van Aert knows he is a world-class sprinter and by leading it out, he is minimizing variables, and by launching early, he was ensuring he wasn’t swamped by the others. And, at least on paper, he is a better sprinter than Pidcock, and can afford to sprint from an unfavorable position. If this was the theory, it worked, and it is tough to argue with a win.
However, I can’t help but wonder why he keeps getting stuck in such bad position in these finishes? Is this simply his rawness on the road showing up? After all, positioning for finishes is very different, nonexistent in Cyclocross, which he has focused on for the majority of his career.
Also, judging by the amount of work Van Aert did in the final 10kms, he clearly didn’t want the race to come down to a large sprint, which is slightly odd, since he is one of the best sprinters in the world and certainly the best in this race. This willingness to do extra work to avoid a sprint has been a trend all Spring, and has cost him a few wins.
With this in mind, it is important to remember that this finale would have been very different if Roglic wouldn’t have dropped his chain on the Cauberg. It is hard to imagine Roglic not making that final selection, which would have allowed Wout to sit on and rest up for the sprint.
Ineos rode a great race and was the strongest team in the finale, but they were somewhat hoisted by their own petard in the final 10-kilometers when Pidcock accelerated and dropped Kwiatkowski and Carapaz. If they had three riders going to the line together, you have to imagine they could have worked Van Aert over by sending one after another off the front and forcing him to chase each move down until one stuck. But they threw this chance away when Pidcock drilled it and distanced them with 13km-to-go.
In the end, it almost didn’t matter, which shows just how talented Pidcock is. He is almost impossible to drop on short, explosive climbs and is also fully capable sprinter in the finale. At only 58-kilograms, he shouldn’t be able to sprint head-to-head with Van Aert, but he is shooting 50% against him in drag-race sprints this week.
But to argue the other side, there could potentially be an overestimation of the advantage of bringing multiple teammates to the finish in the front group. Even with the two Ineos riders stuck behind in the chase group, their presence put pressure on Van Aert to work with Pidcock up front, since things coming back together would have made things infinity more difficult for Van Aert. And it is possible the three-up sprint actually produced the highest chance of success (i.e. winning) for Ineos. After all, Pidcock only needed to start his sprint a meter or two earlier and they would have bagged the win. If he doesn’t accelerate and drop Matthews and Valverde earlier, he may not be able to beat them in a larger sprint.
Movistar was out in force at the front of the race early on but folded when things got serious inside 70km-to-go. This is a terrible habit they have and I continue to wonder what the point of these early show-of-strengths are if they simply sap their strength for the actually important parts of the race. While they were flexing their muscles with 113km-to-go, Alaphilippe was relaxing at the back of the bunch, which shows how little danger there was of the race kicking off at this point.
The Bigger Picture
This brings us to the somewhat silly question of if Van Aert’s Spring should be defined as a ‘success’. On its surface, it’s obviously a yes. He has raced 14 times and netted 10 podiums and 4 wins, which is an absurdly good strike rate. But on the other hand, he has failed to win a monument so far, and if you want to be a top-tier Classics contender, that is how every spring of your career will be judged.
I talked about this on Thursday after the confusion at the Women’s edition of Brabantse Pijl, but the lack of transparency with these photo finishes and the inability to declare a tie, unlike sports with much more sophisticated finish-line tech like swimming, potentially hurts the credibility of these results. And the image we saw of the official judge zooming in on an iPhone to judge the winner only hurts the credibility even further. Sports like swimming and horseracing have photo-finishes down to a science and it seems absurd this hasn’t been solved in pro cycling.
Julian Alaphilippe clearly hasn’t been the same since his win on stage 2 at Tirreno-Adriatico. He came into the season extremely hot at the Tour de la Provence back in February but has struggled to hold this form in the past month. Additionally, it was shocking to see him out-Alaphilipped by his own young teammate Mauri Vansevenant, who blew through the field after being caught up in an earlier crash.
With the last two winners of this coming Wednesday’s La Fleche Wallone, Alaphilippe, and Marc Hirschi, looking off the pace, the door is open for an absurd sixth career victory from Alejandro Valverde.
This also sets up an interesting possibility of Valverde winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege this coming Sunday. Out of the three in the front group, Schachmann has the best odds of success at the hillier Liege (and might be the only one of them even racing the event), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the extra length and elevation gain sees Valverde coming away with a 4th career win there on his 41st birthday.
Outside of Schachmann and Valverde, riders to keep an eye on for Liege are Roglic, who looked great outside of his mechanical issue, and Richard Carapaz, who put in a great performance to support his Ineos teammate Pidcock.
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Another great summary of an exciting finale.
My only constructive criticism is your final "Finish" summary where you discuss the "frame" from the moment they cross the line. That's not how photo finish line cameras work. The whole picture you're seeing is the finish line as the camera is taking pictures along a very fine vertical slice (one pixel width) and are then stitched together. If you're looking at the photo, the "x-axis" is time so the picture you're seeing is where everyone has crossed the finish line. That's why the spokes are bent funny and essentially the more bendy the spokes the more speed the rider had at the moment they were crossing the line. Assuming the camera is set up correctly then the technology works and is very reliable (one pixel wide pics at 500 to 1500 times a second). Here's a great explainer on YT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut0nKdLCAEo
I hope this helps. :)