The first one-day race of the Ardennes Classic calendar ended in disappointment for Australia with Cadel Evans pulling out of the Amstel Gold race with 65km to go and Simon Gerrans having to settle for 20th place in the Netherlands.
Running over 31 punchy climbs in the Limberg region, the undulating 260km race is seen as the curtain raiser to the Ardennes Week, which continues with the forthcoming Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races.
With a finish line at the top of the tricky Cauberg climb (maximum gradient 13%) both Evans and Gerrans certainly had the right profile on paper.
But Tour de France champion Evans pulled out of the race after missing the split ahead of the first ascent of the Cauberg, the BMC rider later revealing that he was fighting an infection that had made his participation touch and go.
“I’m a bit disappointed I’m not on the front with the guys,” the Australian told Cyclingnews while making his way to the team bus following his withdrawal.
“I’ve been having a little trouble with an infection and didn’t know if I’d be good here or not. Evidently I’m not good enough to be competitive and am not able to help the guys in the final today.”
In Evans’s absence, BMC team-mate Philippe Gilbert did his best to notch his first win of the season – and a record-equalling third successive Amstel Gold crown.
Gilbert’s early attack on the final ascent of the Cauberg brought about the capture of Spaniard Oscar Freire of Katusha, who had broken clear with 7km remaining. But the Belgian national champion faded, eventually taking sixth place behind surprise winner, the Italian Enrico Gasparotto (Astana).
Speculation is futile, but had an in-form Evans been present in the final climb to support Gilbert, things may have panned out rather differently.
Gilbert certainly looked isolated, and his early attack was probably a last throw of the dice from a rider who knew he would not win a competitive sprint atop the Cauberg.
BMC’s quest for an open win this season continues. So far, the most expensively assembled squad in pro cycling has just an Evans ITT scalp and overall victory in the lowly Criterium International to show for their dollars.
While Alessandro Ballan was a constant threat in Flanders, new signings Thor Hushovd and Gilbert have been woefully short of form, while Evans looks a shadow of the rider who wore the yellow jersey into Paris last July.
Evans will now focus on recovering before Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne, a race he won back in 2010, or Sunday’s monument of Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
After that, Evans aims to defend his overall win in the six-day Tour of Romandie.
While a concern, the 35-year-old’s wobbly form is not yet something to lose too much sleep about. Of his major rivals for the Tour de France, only Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky has come out of the traps well so far this season – and Wiggins has not ridden a successful Grande Boucle since 2009.
But if the setbacks continue to accumulate for Evans, then the pressure may mount. Evans is a notorious worrier, a ‘confidence rider’ if ever there was one; he needs to be in the right frame of mind to excel. Being forced to retire from a one-day race is not something he will want to repeat.
No such similar issues for Gerrans, who was simply unlucky in the hilly Dutch countryside on Sunday. As they had done so well in Milan-San Remo, Gerrans’ GreenEdge team had protected their man well for most of the day, and the 31-year-old was perfectly placed in the main group as they hit final climb of the Cauberg.
But just as Gilbert increased the tempo in pursuit of the fading Freire, a collision between Italy’s Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug forced a split in the pack – and Gerrans was one of the handful of favourites who were caught up in the debris.
Also held up were Spanish pre-race favourites Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – and it was a shame that fans were deprived the chance of seeing Gerrans and Valverde renew their blossoming rivalry (the Spaniard has twice pipped the Australian in punchy uphill sprint finishes this season).
With many caught out by the crash, the scene looked set for Slovakian sensation Peter Sagan to net his first major classics win. But the Liquigas youngster ran out of gas inside the final 20m and was overtaken by Gasparotto and the rangy Belgian Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol).
The three made up an unlikely podium after what had been a slightly underwhelming race. With the heroics of Tom Boonen in the Flanders classics still fresh in the mind, Amstel Gold was perhaps always going to be rather an anticlimax – even if it’s a race sponsored by a brewery.
Gerrans, certainly, and Evans, possibly, will be back in action for the two major Ardennes races later this week. And after so many riders missing a trick on Sunday, we can expect fireworks.