Ten Takeaways: What We Learned at Amstel Gold & Itzulia Basque Country
Breaking down another wild finish at Amstel Gold & Dani Martinez's surprising performance at Basque Country
The past weekend saw Ineos return to the top of the cycling world with Michal Kwiokoski’s win at the one-day Amstel Gold race and Dani Martinez’s overall victory at the week-long Itzulia Basque Country. Kwiatkowski’s Amstel win marked more finish-line drama at the seasons’ biggest one-day Dutch race, as eventual runner-up Benoît Cosnefroy was originally told he was the winner only to have to suffer the agony of being later informed that the photo-finish showed Kwiatkowski had actually crossed the line first due to the execution of a picture-perfect bike throw (practice your bike throws kids).
The pair of victories represented two ends of the spectrum for Ineos, with the 31-year-old Kwiatkowski being long-dormant at major races and the 25-year-old Martinez continuing his climb as an up-and-coming GC hopeful. However, despite these successes, it remains to be seen if this is a sign of a true return to form for Ineos at its main objective, the Tour de France, later in the season.
Amstel Gold Race Notebook:
35.5km: Ineos has taken complete control of the race and is clearly trying to set up a Tom Pidcock attack on the ensuing climb.
33.8km: When they hit the climb, we can see two Ineos riders survive (Pidcock and Kwiatkowski) while Van der Poel is distanced. Notice Ineos has a rider in both parts of the now split group.
33.4km: While he was dropped on the climb, Van der Poel almost seems to magically reappear when the group reforms at the top a few moments later.
23.7km: Later on, we can see Tom Pidcock stringing the group out on a climb. He swings over to see who is responding and how they appear to be doing.
22km: Since everyone appears to be on the limit, it leaves the door open for Pidcocks’ teammate Kwiatkowski to counter attack. As soon as the others start to look around at each other, the race is pretty much over and we know a strong rider like Kwiatkowski isn’t coming back.
19.5km: With the gap still at a manageable distance, Cosnefroy surges from the group to bridge up to Alaphilippe. There are so many conflicting incentives in the group behind that the others are still caught looking at each other despite the last train to join the front leaving the station.
14.3km: Once Cosnefroy is up front, the burden of pacemaking falls mostly on him since at least in theory, Kwiatkowski is fine getting caught by the chase group and having his teammate Pidcock sprint for the win.
Van der Poel is attempting to surge clear in the chase group, but he is both heavily marked by the others and doesn’t appear to have his turbocharge mode that has allowed him to mow down similar moves in the past.
300m: Coming into the finish, we get a thrilling stalled lead group for the second week in the row. Benoot has surged clear, which means Kwiatkowski has left some of his leverage, but Cosnefroy doesn’t really try to call his bluff and instead, launches an early sprint.
Finish: The long sprint against a quick rider very nearly works, but we can see from the overhead shot that Kwiatkowski, despite never actually having his body in front of Cosnefroy, wins the race by executing a picture-perfect bike throw. Meanwhile, Cosnefroy throws far too lack and suffers a horrible defeat, which is made even worse by the fact that he was initially told by the race radio he had won and only found out he in fact finished second after a review of the photo finish.
Four Amstel Gold Takeaways
1) After a few years in the wilderness, Michal Kwiatkowski returns to the winners circle
The 2014 World Champion gets his second Amstel victory (2015 & 2022) and looked back to his old self five years after his last major one-day victory (2017 San Sebastian).
His once-great finishing speed has likely been blunted by years spent setting pace on the front during the Tour de France, but his racecraft is still there, and it showed with his savvy solo attack and critical bike throw.
This win was a real team win for Ineos, who took a sizable risk buring so many riders setting up the final move, but it paid off when they got two riders into the lead group. After their overall win at Basque Country, it was an exclamation point to a great weekend for them.
2) Amstel botches another photo finish
After last year’s edition, where a potential wrong result was given due to a botched finish-line camera, this is another finish line debacle for Amstel.
How is this possible and how were they not more prepared?
3) Benoît Cosnefroy gets the result of a lifetime…
…and also unfortunately now deeply understands the importance of a well-timed bike throw.
But, setting aside the soul-crushing ending, this is a massive result for the Frenchman and his AG2R team.
While he got second place at the 2020 Fleche Wallonne, both the quality of Amstel and the way in which he bridged up to Kwiatkowski showed a tactical and physical step-up for the French rider.
He only has a single WorldTour victory, and no career wins outside of France, but after this, it is worth keeping an eye on Cosnefroy as an outside contender at future difficult one-days.
4) Despite great results, Mathieu van der Poel’s form continues to remain a mystery
After a career-defining win last week at Flanders, Van der Poel oddly subdued on Sunday at Amstel. This leaves us oddly in the dark about his current physical ability and confused as to whether he was simply bluffing or is a little bit off his best after a difficult Spring.
For example, he was distanced in a critical portion of the race on Sunday, but it isn’t clear if this was a bluff or if he was really in difficulty.
Bluff or not, his inability to rip clear of the chase group and close the gap to the leaders stood in stark contrast to his memorable performance here in 2019, when he exploded over the last 10-kilometers to reel in a lead duo (that included Kwiatkowski) and sprinted to victory.
This new restraint shows maturity, but also that he might not be firing at the same level as he was a few seasons ago. It remains to be seen if this is due to his long racing layoff from his back injury, or if the length and intensity of WorldTour races have simply blunted his explosive style.
Six Itzulia Basque Country Takeaways:
5) Dani Martinez is the best GC rider at Ineos but is still being overlooked by his team
He might have some weaknesses, namely his descending, and was bailed out by Evenepoel pacing in the final valley on stage 6, but Martinez is proving that with Egan Bernal injured, he just might be the best grand tour GC option at Ineos.
While Adam Yates is still being promoted as the Tour de France leader by the team, he was simply outperformed by Martinez this week and it frankly seems strange at this point to continue to back him over more talented younger riders on the squad.
At this point, it is clear that Carlos Rodriguez and Martinez are two of the most promising young riders in the sport but seem to be struggling for opportunities at Ineos and risk stagnating.
While Ineos has a reputation as a data-driven team, this speaks to their inability would be superstars at other teams but are stuck as bit players at Ineos
6) Descending and race craft are key at races like the Basque Country, but won’t matter (as much) later in the season
While Martinez might be a terrible descender and misstepped a few times at the Basque country, it isn’t clear how much this will matter in a race like the Tour de France.
For example, despite excellent descending skills across the boards, no Basque riders have won the Tour in modern history.
This is due to the courses at the Tour being far tamer than these early-season week-long stage races and more firepower in the bunch making the race harder to split on or after descents and the importance of minor placings meaning there will always be another team or rider to set pace to bail you out after you’ve been dropped.
7) Primož Roglič is still searching for form
He never appeared fully fit the entire week but neither he nor his Jumbo team didn’t appear totally caught off guard by this and were content to let Jonas Vingegaard lead.
This tells us that he is either finally slipping due to age or simply recognizing a flaw in his previous ‘always on’ strategy and instead, utilizing a slower build into the Tour de France.
Considering he has struggled with holding form into the third week of grand tours in the past, I wouldn’t be shocked if this was the case.
8) With Slovenian uphill domination out of the picture for a weekend, we saw a resurgence in the importance of racecraft at Basque Country and Amstel
Martinez surging away from Evenepoel to grab time bonus seconds while Jonas Vingegaard and Vlasov got tangled up and likely lost the race was the perfect example of racers vs less-skilled, but very talented, GC-specific riders.
Jonas Vingegaard’s silly crash at the end of stage 5 due to inattentiveness and his chatting with Evenepoel while two GC threats attacked on stage 6 shows potentially made the difference in the final GC standings.
Also, add the Basque riders’ technically perfect daredevil descending throughout the week causing major problems for contenders, and Kwio’s picture-perfect bike throw at Amstel, and the weekend was a real showcase for bike skills and racecraft.
9) Julian Alaphilippe is winning less and less every year
While he has looked good at a glance, the hard facts are that so far in 2022, he only has a single win, and more concerningly, is consistently getting beat in a lot of finishes that he normally wins.
In addition, while he looked good at times during the Basque Country, his team invested serious resources in his sprint finishes, only for him to be beaten by riders who are much slower on paper. In short, he appears to be missing that last few percentage points that allow him to draw the line between looking good and actually delivering results.
This decline in raw wins has been a trend since the 2020 season (only 7 wins over that three season period versus 26 over the previous three seasons), but has been masked by his big time performances at the World Championships that has netted him two titles in two seasons.
10) Remco and QuickStep’s strange strategies bite them again.
Looking back, it was an incredibly ill-planned race for the Belgian team. Instead of having Evenepoel ride like a real GC contender and conserving energy, he was used as a glorified leadout man for Alaphilippe earlier in the week, and these massive efforts likely cost him the 20-odd seconds he needed on the final day.
Additionally, nothing underlines the lack of GC strategy at QuickStep like Evenepoel’s massive move for the bonus sprint prior to the final climb, which only netted him a single second and potentially contributed to him being dropped incredibly early on the final climb.
But oddly, despite being dropped early on the climb, he finished only 24-seconds behind the leaders. This tells me that if Evenepoel had gone deep enough, he could have made it to the line with the lead group and won the GC. This, along with him dropping back on nearly every major climb at this race, speaks to his extreme habit of riding almost every climb at his own pace. While this is a good practice for GC riders in some instances, Evenepoel has pushed it to the extreme and is showing how it can backfire when leaned on too much.
All of this speaks to a lack of greater GC strategy at QuickStep and tells us why in their nearly 20-year-history, they have only won a single major stage race.
Also, while Evenepoel, at 22-year-olds, is still young and these are promising results, it is time to wonder if he is actually developing at QuickStep. In terms of results, he is regressing as a racer and has yet to show that he possesses the raw watts to get up and over multiple difficult climbs in a single stage.
In terms of QuickStep, we are seeing that they certainly will never be a GC team and that if Evenepoel is truly serious about contending in major Tours, he needs to leave for another squad. Part of the issue is the team’s frugal transfer strategy, which relies on low-salary, bonus-heavy contracts, which are appealing to sprinters and stage hunters, but less so for domestiques like Wout Poels.