Good afternoon race fans, and welcome to the Dutch border town of Limburg, home of the Amstel Zwift Race. Sadly, there is no one here, due of course to the Coronavirus Lockdown. Not a soul around, which tells the story of this unprecedented 2020 Classics Season.
Right now the streets of Limburg would usually be filled with (drunk) Dutch and Belgian cycling fans, all hoarse from screaming at their favourite riders. This time last year in fact, the crowd was particularly animated after watching Mathieu van der Poel at last shed his human visage and reveal the big red S on his chest!
Fast forward 12 months to this afternoon, and the scene could not be more different. MVDP is probably at home right now, composing a concerto, deadlifting 150kg with one leg and teaching long division to impoverished children via Houseparty. That's how you role model, Peter Sagan! In fairness to Sagan, after last week's tantrum, he has apparently secured quite a lot of funding for his Grease remake movie, and has quit cycling for a career in Hollywood. Some dreams do come true!
What then of the pro peloton, who so callously abandoned last week's Paris Zwiftbaix race after Sagan raised an eyebrow in their direction? Abandoned by their Napoleonic talisman, Gilbert, GVA and the rest all came grovelling to the UCI this week, claiming Sagan had threatened to lace their nighttime coco with EPO if they didn't do what he said. The old tricks really are the best!
With the best male cyclists in the world grovelling on their knees to be allowed to race on Zwift this week, the UCI took to bold decision of telling them to take a hike. The truth being that viewing figures for the last couple of races have been through the roof, at least triple that of any previous one day race. To the surprise of everyone, it turns out that the public really prefer watching complete amateurs attack each other over and over again from start to finish, then lie down on the floor trying not to vomit after 60km at a whopping 280 watts. Now that's great TV!
The two teams of the moment that have been lighting up this spring season are of course Dirty Wknd and All Things Ride, a bunch of relative nobodies who have been catapulted into superstardom. Responsibly social distancing and absolutely practising #stayhomestaysafe, these athletes are probably still stuck to their turbo trainers even now, hours after the ride, crumpled and broken, having given their all. This then is how the 2020 Amstel Zwift Race played out.
With the Ronde Van Zwift starting at a brisk pace two weeks ago, and Paris Zwiftbaix taking it up a notch last weekend, then the AZR said 'hold my beer' and took things up another 3 notches. Most of the riders were prepared for this, even if the fans were not, as the majority of the group got away at the front. Chucking down over 400 watts from the gun, it was a big start to a bike ride. If you're expecting a ride report about how this front group would battle it out with each other over 68km to see who would take the win, then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. The winner of this race was decided in less than 5 minutes....
The race start was fast enough to turn even MVDP's head, but Craig McColl from DWRT decided at around, oh, 2.7km, that it wasn't quite fast enough and decided to casually ride off the front. Making this bunch of hardened Classics riders look like school children, with a point to prove after last week's second place, McColl skipped away with ease. After realising no one had matched his huge attack, McColl even slowed a bit to try and goad other riders into following him.
The hard charging bunch did start to get a bit closer to McColl (he may have pulled up at the side of the road and checked Instagram, we're not 100% sure), the order came over the radio for DWRT new boy Ilya Gridneff, himself with a point to prove after last week's impressive but ultimately fruitless ride, to get up the road and keep McColl entertained for the remaining 65km. Never one to disappoint, Gridneff charged ahead to bridge the gap and the two of them disappeared into the sunset like Thelma and Louise. The only question was, who was going to ride off a cliff!
If last week's team display by DWRT was impressive, then this was looking like the beginnings of a grandmaster's opening chess move. Two riders up the road, seven or so on the front of the bunch controlling the pace, and the rest of the team in the peloton fulfilling contractual sponsorship obligations. Like last week, a few of the key All Things Ride powerhouses had missed the fast start, and were on the back foot already. With a wall of black and white to get through, the green jerseys had given themselves a veritable mountain to climb.
One of the big questions surrounding this race, and the only reason so many people have been tuning into the live streams so far (rumour has it that this race drew a bigger audience than the Pop Idol final), was which Jonny Secrett would turn up? Now a global superstar with more Instagram followers than Justin Bieber, The Whisper's reputation as a 'supernatural' rider has sometimes allowed him to stray into the realms of the diva. However, the mercurial talent had clearly been given the right coloured shoes this morning (sparkling gold, if you're wondering), as there he was, bright green extra extra tight skin-suit clad, sitting pretty near the front of the bunch. Would he be able to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of this group?
Whether they were trying to catch McColl and Gridneff or just hammering the pedals to show how tough they were no one, including themselves, could tell. Whatever the aim the outcome was devastating; the bunch splintered, multiple groups formed on the road as the All Things Ride team began to scramble a response to this DWRT onslaught.
Fan favourites Alastair Grant and Seb Cailliau, two key domestiques for Secrett had missed the fast start, a big blow for the ATR team. Barrelling through the peloton, it was going to be touch and go to see if the duo could make it up to The Whisper to lend him some support. Where the DWRT squad was a united front, the ATR team were fragmented into groups of two. Secrett had the vital help of road captain Muz in group one, but behind him them were Grant and Cailliau, further back from them were Adam Jones and 'The Flying Dutchman' Tom Elliott, fulfilling the role of local fan favourite. Finally behind them, breaking away from the peloton and attempting to restore some order, were Rich Gray and Tom Picking.
With the whole Dirty Wknd team definitely knowing that the fast start was coming ( reported mid week white board sessions seem to be paying off), the front group (not counting the two up the road) was chocka with black and white shirts, all doing their bit to ensure the pace was red hot. Right on queue, DW riders began to drop off to take up their strategic places on the road, post Tik Tok videos and wait for the inevitable green charge of the ATR rockets.
The front group then read like a who's who of eRacing legends. Alongside ATR chief Muz and Secrett, who of course needs no introduction, were the united front of Will Taylor, Andy Robinson, David Bavin and Stephen Byrne. Muz was putting a huge shift in trying to shell any of the DWRT riders and protect The Whisper. But dropped they would not be, so the quintet settled into each other's company and the approaching Volcano climb.
Responsibly social distancing themselves from the front group were the DWRT duo of Arun Petkas and Rich Trindall. Returning to the peloton to check in with road captains Paul New, Sheree Lim and new recruit Marissa Beatty, Petkas and Trindall set off up the road to engage Picking and Gray from ATR in a battle that would last right up until the finish line.
Back in the duo up front, McColl and Gridneff of DWRT were playing a little game of their own. Having made the leap across the gap to reach the front, Ilya Gridneff might now have been wishing he hadn't, as McColl amused himself by offering the Aussie his wheel, only then to up the power and gently slink away. Some may call it banter, others 'new team member on boarding', (some just plain old bullying) but for the watching crowd it just looked like McColl was playing with his food. McColl clearly a proponent of the 'what doesn't kill him...' mentality!
Despite the huge ride that Gridneff had put in to work with McColl for half the race, the early effort to get across began to take its toll and the duo split at the Volcano climb. McColl sailed on to take a convincing win, but Gridneff did not fall off a cliff! Having earned his stripes, the respect of fans around the world and at least 2 or 3 post ride beers, he pushed on solo to ensure that second place would be his.
The question then, became who would round out the podium. All eyes fell on The Whisper here, as the man in the golden shoes began to limber up for something special. Bavin was long gone, as is customary this season, soon to be followed by ATR road captain Muz, having done a huge job protecting Secrett. Now outnumbered three to one, The Whisper would have to perform a miracle with the combined weight of Taylor, Robinson and Byrne around his neck!
The world watching, baited breath, the pace went up again. Secrett put in dig after dig, and heat became too much for the Irishman Byrne as he began to exit the kitchen. It looked like Secrett was going to dispatch the DWRT boys one by one. C'est la vie, if that's how it must be done. The Whisper looked around, and pressed harder.
But Robinson and Taylor would not be dropped. Inspired by their comrades up the road and sticking limpet like to Secrett's wheel, they crested the summit together. Aghast, the world watched hardly daring to breathe. Was The Whisper on the ropes? Is that even possible? If there was a plan B, then we were left wondering what it might be. Muz pushed on up the hill solo in the hope of rejoining the group, with the rest of the assorted cast in various groups on the road behind. With the memory of MVDP's heroic sprint finish being driven from their minds forever, race fans around the world were transfixed to the ballet playing out before them.
The peloton continued as before - strong and resolute, surveying all before it and barking orders into the race radio. Instructions that basically amounted to 'ride harder, bridge the gap' or 'slow up, hold that pace' depending on how lucky the individual rider was. With so many groups on the road, the live stream had no idea which battle to follow. Petkas and Trindall were still going toe to toe with Gray and Picking, and the duo of Jones and The Dutchman had bridged up to Bavin, creating a mouthwatering ATR sandwich. Grant and Cailliua were still charging hard to try and reach their team mates up the road, but had they left themselves enough time to make an impact?
No one it seems was able to make an impact on the top step of the podium it seems, as after a couple of coffee stops and a quick beard trim, DWRT's Craig McColl crossed the finish line with his hands in the air. He would have popped an audacious wheelie, if he hadn't had so much class. Not that long after him, securing second place and the hearts of the virtual crowd, Ilya Gridneff crossed the line. Now all eyes turned to the next group on the road, and of course we had a glitch in the live stream and footage went dark.
When the picture resumed (it wouldn't be a bike race without a suspense filled gap in footage), it is fair to say that everyone was shocked to see the figure of Stephen Byrne soloing towards the line. Having been on the point of popping when we saw him last, the Irishman had gone deeper than anyone has gone before, and not only made it back to the group, but put in a stinging attack to break the elastic and drop The Whisper. Whether this was part of a plan to put Secrett in trouble or just a death of glory one-for-the-ages break we'll never know, but it hardly matters as Byrne did enough to get away, securing the final spot on the box and an all DWRT podium. Two out of three last week was turned into the full house this week. Chapeau team!
Other riders with the breeding, natural talent and shall we say 'fragile' mentality of a superstar like Jonny Secrett might have taken this loss of a podium opportunity very hard. Some would have sat up, others might have climbed off entirely. One famous example might have even given it all up and moved to Hollywood. But not a 'once in a generation' rider like Jonny Secrett. The Whisper gave a curt nod to Robinson and Taylor, recognition of a job well done to his day long antagonists, before shimmying away to secure 4th place for the All Things Ride team. Robinson and Taylor would finish 5th and 6th respectively after indispensable team rides, followed by Muz who had heaped praise on himself with a strong solo finish.
Grant and Cailliau came in 8th and 9th, hard rides rewarded with strong placing, but clearly suffering from missing the fast start. Rounding out the top 10 was a strong finishing Adam Jones, reaping the rewards of strong rides in previous weeks. After dispensing with the Dutchman Tom Elliott with around 10km to go, Jones and Bavin looked set for a repeat of last week's finish, where Jones dragged the DWRT rider to the line only to lose out in the sprint. "Trick me once, shame on you..." clearly playing in his head, Jones had learnt his lesson, showing Bavin a clean pair of heels with 8km to go, crossing the line solo.
With strong rides and many course PBs throughout the rest of the field, there is no doubt that everyone gave it their all at the 2020 Amstel Zwift Race. The last group on the road before the peloton was also decided by a close bunch sprint, with Petkas taking the honours from Trindall and then Picking. Gray had burnt his last match leading out his team mate, but this one would go to DWRT too. What was left of the peloton after such a blistering race crossed the line together having done their jobs, pleased for another long and bumpy day to be over.
Commentators and race fans of all stripes were united at the end of the 2019 Amstel Gold Race; united in the notion that we would not see a more exciting edition of the race than that which culminated in MVDP's game changing sprint finish. But then they didn't bargain for 2020, and it's ability to turn things completely on its head. Was the 2020 Amstel Zwift Race better than the 2019 race? Not for us to say, but damn was it exciting!
Tune in next week for the final two instalments of the 2020 Classics season with Dirty Wknd and All Things Ride. Like London buses, you lucky race fans have two explosive races in a week to sink your teeth into. Wednesday night (22nd) sees this new look pro peloton take on La Zwift Wallone, the first of the Ardennes Classic double header. Then on Sunday (26th) the big, bad and must watch finale of the season - Liège Watopia Liège! With 107km and 1600 metres of climbing on the final day, have any of these riders left anything in the tank? We can't wait to find out!