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AFP / Yuzuru Sunada
Former world champion Philippe Gilbert will set off in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race as one of the hot favorites for victory. The 31-year-old Belgian, who won back-to-back Amstel races in 2010 and 2011, proved he is back on form after missing the cobbled Classics in the previous two weeks when he sprinted to victory in Wednesday’s De Brabantse Pijl. The BMC rider had opted to skip the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in order to prepare for his favored races in the Ardennes.
Back in 2011 he became only the second rider to win all three Ardennes Classics in the same year, following disgraced Italian Davide Rebellin’s feat from 2004 – he served a two-year ban after testing positive for a banned blood-boosting derivative of EPO at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Gilbert has certainly proved on this course that he is the man to beat in recent years having finished in the top six in each of the last five years. In fact, in that time period he has only finished outside the top seven in the three Ardennes Classics on three occasions, whilst winning four times. And his victory at De Brabantse Pijl provides a good omen as the only other time he managed that, in 2011, he went on to do the Ardennes treble.
That was an incredible year for Gilbert who won 18 races, claiming the overall World Tour title, becoming national champion in both the road race and time-trial, and spending a day in yellow at the Tour de France to boot after winning the opening stage. He will certainly be a marked man but by out-sprinting Australian Michael Matthews on Wednesday he demonstrated that he will be a danger not only on a solo breakaway but also in a bunch sprint come Sunday.
He won’t have it all his own way, of course, not least because this being the only major Classics race in the Netherlands, the Dutch riders and teams will be eager to impress. One such will be Belkin’s Bauke Mollema, who has managed 10th placed finishes the last two years but is aiming a little higher this time around.
“If I finish 10th again, I won’t be in a jubilant mood,” he said. “Last year, I often finished between the fifth and 10th place in the Walloon classics. It would be nice to get a top five this year.” And following compatriot Niki Terpstra’s success at Paris-Roubaix last Sunday, Mollema is expecting morale to be high amongst Dutch riders and fans.
“The Amstel is perhaps the best race of the year for a Dutchman. The fans show up in large numbers and they are very enthusiastic,” he added. “After Niki Terpstra’s victory in Paris-Roubaix, I think things will be extra special.”
Belkin did receive a blow to their hopes earlier in the week, though, when one of Mollema’s main domestiques Robert Gesink was forced to pull-out of the race after announcing he needed an operation to fix a heart condition.
Frenchman Tony Gallopin of Lotto-Belisol showed he was in good form with a third-placed finish at Brabantse Pijl while Belgian Bjorn Leukemans, who also had a good ride in the Tour of Flanders finishing ninth, continued his good spring results with fifth. But the other main challengers to Gilbert’s hopes will come from Portuguese world champion Rui Costa, although he is more suited to a tilt at Liege-Bastogne-Liege a week later, current title holder Roman Kreuziger and Spanish all-rounders Joaquim Rodriguez, the 2012 Fleche Wallonne winner, and Alejandro Valverde, twice a Liege winner and once each at the Fleche Wallonne and Classica San Sebastian.
Irishman Daniel Martin, the reigning Liege champion, Spain’s Dani Moreno, the Fleche Wallonne title-holder, Michal Kwiatowski of Poland and Australia’s Simon Gerrans could all also be in the mix.