Preview: Valverde, Gerrans square off again at Amstel Gold Race

Ardennes week is here. Get the rundown on the favorites, the route and the underlying stories for Sunday's Amstel Gold Race

Photo: AFP

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Short, sharp climbs, heavy crosswinds, narrow roads, innumerable traffic islands and a brutal battle for position make the Amstel Gold Race one of the most under-rated and nervous days of the spring classics. Without an overwhelming favorite, Sunday’s 47th edition will be all the more stressful — just the situation the gritty opportunists need to turn the tables on the power climbers in the opener of the Ardennes classics.

Sandwiched between cycling monuments Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, two of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious races, the upstart Amstel Gold Race is the youngest of the classics and probably the most nerve-wracking. Westerly winds buffet the low-slung hills of the Netherlands’ Limburg region, which plays host to the Dutch classic on Sunday. With rain in the forecast and temperatures around 50F, this weekend’s 256km Amstel Gold Race could be a very sloppy affair.

The Tour of Flanders and Roubaix lie behind the peloton, and the big, brawny cobbles-bashers step aside for a new style of rider to take over as AGR opens “Ardennes week.”

Preliminary Startlist >>
Course Map >>
Previous Winners >>
Full Amstel Gold Race Coverage >>

This week in the hills of eastern Holland and Belgium offers the climbers three chances for classics glory. But the GC riders capable of winning a grand tour will have their best shot later in the week, as La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are better suited for the likes of Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck.

Amstel Gold Race winners are typically riders who are nimble enough to climb, but still pack a punch at the end of seven hours of racing. Puncheurs such as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Gilbert are all ideal for this terrain.

All three will line up as legitimate favorites for victory, though Gilbert has admitted he’s not even close to the same level as he was last year when he swept through Ardennes week, making him only the second rider to ever win Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same year. (The first rider was Davide Rebellin, who later served a doping suspension tied to the 2008 Olympic Games.)

“You have to be realistic… I’m not the favorite,” Gilbert said following Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl warm-up race, east of Brussels. “My main ambition is to re-find my shape, the shape I had last year. Either it will come or it won’t… Let’s put it this way: right now it’s not pleasant. Also because it is difficult to find a way out, to analyze why I’m lacking shape.”

While Gilbert arrives after a week of training in Monaco that followed his run at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and Flanders, Gerrans, Rodriguez, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), came through the typical lead-up to the hilly classics by riding the Vuelta al País Vasco in Spain earlier this month.

Sánchez looks to be back in the same form that delivered him the Olympic gold medal four years ago and enters the week with high ambitions. He won the queen stage at the Basque Country tour for the third year-in-a-row and finally captured the overall there, which had eluded him in his team’s biggest one-week race.

“Now I am at peace with myself and with the fans,” said Sánchez. “Finally at 34, which I just celebrated, I won the race that most resisted me. I had been third, I had won stages, I was the leader… finally, my turn.”

Sánchez will carry the freedom that the long-sought-after win gives him into Maastricht and is one of the favorites most capable of riding away on the Keutenberg or Eyserbosweg.

Gerrans will also ride with a free hand on Sunday, a month after opening the classics season with the surprise win at Milan-San Remo. The Aussie is best suited to the Ardennes races and with the confidence of an unforeseen victory and the backing of his GreenEdge squad, Gerrans will no doubt be a firecracker as the race arrives on the final circuit.

“They’re pretty honest races. If you got good legs in the final, you will be up in the front,” said Gerrans. “Amstel finishes atop the Cauberg; that’s a pretty truthful finish. The best guy in the front group always wins. This year there is not one big favorite, so the racing might be a bit more open.”

The other top favorite is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), looking to make up for lost time during his two-year doping ban from Operación Puerto.

Valverde has been on great form so far, winning in his first race back with a stage at the Tour Down Under in January, followed by stages and the overall at the Ruta del Sol and a stage at Paris-Nice and the podium. Two of those wins came head-to-head with Gerrans on hilltop sprints similar to the Cauberg.

A crash knocked Valverde out of the Volta a Catalunya, but so far he’s won in each month since his return and hopes to keep that streak going with a strong ride in the Ardennes. The Spaniard has trained his eyes on returning to the top step of the podium at Liège since rejoining the peloton in January, and the finale on the Cauberg is the perfect prelude, if he arrives to Valkenburg at the front of the race.

Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was impressive with his victory Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl, but Amstel is a notch or two harder that that transition race between the cobbles and the Ardennes. Voeckler, however, is never one to shy away from a punching match and Gilbert opened his historic run last year with a win in the midweek semi-classic. Voeckler has never finished inside the top-25 on the Cauberg, and given his win on Wednesday — and his reputation as a gritty breakaway rider — the other favorites are not likely to let the Frenchman out of their sights anywhere inside the final two circuits.

Two riders on the “watch list” are Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan). Both are expected to start despite crashing in separate incidents at Brabantse Pijl. Schleck injured his hand, but expected to recover in time for Sunday. Sagan slammed hard on his right side and is more doubtful.

That’s unfortunate, because if one rider seemed destined to win Amstel Gold Race, it would be Sagan. The Slovak sensation has been on a tear this spring and is poised for a big win. There’s no question he can sprint at the end of a hard effort — he won the chase group sprint at Milan-San Remo and was second in the field sprint at the Tour of Flanders — but his crash Wednesday might have taken the wind out of his sails.

The Dutch are always under the gun to try to win on home roads, though the last national winner was more than a decade ago with Erik Dekker in 2001. Mollema will lead a Rabobank squad that is bringing it’s A-team, with Lars Boom, Matti Breschel, Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk and Bram Tamkink all lining up, but the orange-clad home team will most likely find difficulty in creating a scenario in which it can win its biggest one-day race of the year.

The route

The purists will say that the Limburg region has nothing to do geographically nor geologically with the Belgian Ardennes, the setting for La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but for brevity’s sake, “Ardennes Week” has stuck.

Some 25 climbs for a total of 31 ascents (riders tackle some hills more than once over three circuits) are packed in on the 256.5km course that loops back and forth around the family farms and small villages east of Maastricht.

The route doubles back between Maastricht, where the race starts, and Valkenburg, the party town at the base of the finish line at the Cauberg, before diving into the three circuits comprising the final 184 kilometers of the route. Alone, the climbs are not terribly long, with most not even measuring a kilometer in length, but packed in one after another in an endless string of turns, sharp corners, narrow roads and manure-slicked farm tracks they create a building tension as riders approach the tens of thousands of fans pouring out of cafes and taverns at the foot of the Cauberg for the final time.

The 31 climbs of the 2012 Amstel Gold Race:
1. Maasberg (4.4%, 500m) at 10.7km
2. Adsteeg (5.4%, 500m) at 32.5km
3. Lange Raarberg (4.5%, 1300m) at 40.2km
4. Bergseweg (3.3%, 2700m) at 55.5km
5. Sibbergrubbe (4.1%, 2100m) at 67.4km
6. Cauberg (5.8%, 1200m) at 72.8km
7. Wolfsberg (4.4%, 800m) at 93.2km
8. Loorberg (5.5%, 1500m) at 98.8km
9. Schweibergerweg (3.9%, 2900m) at 108.9km
10. Camerig (3.8%, 4300m) at 115.3km
11. Drielandenpunt (3.8%, 3700m) at 128.3km
12. Gemmenich (6.4%, 900m) at 131.1km
13. Vijlenerbos (7.9%, 1800m) at 134.6km
14. Eperheide (4.5%, 2300m) at 144.4km
15. Gulpenerberg (8.1%, 700m) at 152.4km
16. van Plettenbergweg (4.2%, 1000m) at 155.9km
17. St. Remigiusstraat (4.3%, 2200m) at 157.8km
18. Huls (7.7%, 1000m) at 162.7km
19. Vrakelberg (7.9%, 700m) at 168.1km
20. Sibbergrubbe (4.1%, 2100m) at 176km
21. Cauberg (5.8%, 1200m) at 176km
22. Geulhemmerweg (6.2%, 1000m) at 185km
23. Bemelerberg (5%, 900m) at 198.7km
24. Wolfsberg (4.4%, 800m) at
25. Loorberg (5.5%, 1500m) at 221.4km
26. Gulpenerberg (8.1%, 700m) at 229.7km
27. Kruisberg (7.5%, 800m) at 235.2km
28. Eyserbosweg (8.1%, 1100m) at 237.3km
29. Fromberg (4%, 1600m) at 241km
30. Keutenberg (9.4%, 700m) at 245.5km
31. Cauberg (5.8%, 1200m) at 256.6km

The nerves will ratchet up in the second half of the race, with such climbs as the Eyserbosweg figuring early before the decisive final 40km where the big moves are typically made.

A brutal string of climbs, with the Kruisberg, the Eyserbosweg (again), Fromberg and Keutenberg usually see riders launching race-breaking moves. Last year, Schleck tried in vain to attack on the Keutenberg, only to get gobbled up at the base of the Cauberg on its final ascent.

Big crowds pack the bars and terraces at Valkenburg (host of this year’s world championships) for the final charge up the Cauberg. The climb is just over 1km, but packs a punch, with ramps as steep as 14 percent. Gilbert followed Rodriguez as the sprightly Spaniard countered Schleck on the climb last year, before jumping away as the pitch mellowed near the top.

The Cauberg has been the kingmaker of late, but brave attacks in the closing 20km have worked. Sergei Ivanov won from such a move, with Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) in 2009. Stefan Schumacher made an attack before Valkenburg stick in 2007, winning by 21 seconds over teammate Rebellin; Fränk Schleck and Rebellin also cracked Amstel Gold atop the podium after long-range attacks, in 2006 and 2004, respectively.

The bottom line is that this race is one of the most unpredictable and exciting of the year. Any race named after a beer can’t be half bad, after all.

Five-star favorites

Alejandro Valverde, Movistar
If Valverde can get through the tricky circuits around the Limburg, he should arrive to the final 25 kilometers the top favorite. With a burst that has proven unbeatable in uphill finishes thus far in 2012, Valverde would like to add the Amstel Gold hardware to his 2006 and 2008 Liège trophies. The “Green Bullet’s” luck ran short in late March, crashing out of the Volta a Catalunya on the second stage, but said days later that he was nearly back to 100 percent and was looking forward to a “beautiful duel” with Philippe Gilbert.

Simon Gerrans, GreenEdge
One rider looking to upset that duel, Gerrans was third at Amstel Gold in 2011, behind Gilbert and Rodriguez, and returns now as a winner of one of cycling’s monuments. His Milan-San Remo victory in March bolstered Gerrans’ confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it removed the pressure he felt leading Team Sky at the Ardennes in 2011. Gerrans has a score to settle with Valverde after the Spaniard beat him in hilltop photo finishes at the Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice. If the racing is as open as Gerrans expects, he is one of the top favorites capable of going in a late move and forcing it to the finish. He did battle a cold at País Vasco last week, but stopped before the time trial in order to recover.

Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha
“Purito” Rodriguez is better suited to Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne, but is on a hot streak. Stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and País Vasco emboldened the Katusha rider and if not for a super-natural Gilbert, Rodriguez could have won on the Cauberg in 2011. Perhaps the biggest card Rodriguez has to play — and also the biggest weight around his ankles — is teammate Oscar Freire. Rodriguez may need to go on the attack early, forcing the other climbers to chase and setting up Freire for the finale. If both Spaniards are in the front group at the foot of the Cauberg, don’t count on Rodriguez to wind up the first attack, as is his usual tactic. Although, with attacks as fierce as they are unpredictable, “Purito” may do just that.

Four-star favorites

Peter Sagan, Liquigas-Cannondale
Sagan would be a top favorite, if not for his hard crash on Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl. The Slovak appears to have improved his bike handling significantly this year and his wits are catching up to his rain-making legs.

Samuel Sánchez, Euskaltel-Euskadi
The Olympic gold medalist is one of the fastest finishers in a finale like the Cauberg. He is only held back by his lack of Amstel Gold experience, having finished in the top-15 three times, in 2009 (13th), 2007 (15th) and 2006 (15th), but never contending for the win.

Oscar Freire, Katusha
Freire is an outlier in this list of favorites. With no top-heavy favorite on the roll, the racing over the final 50 kilometers on Sunday will likely be extremely aggressive. If this is the case, one of the climbers will probably see the top of the Cauberg first. Freire has been knocking on the door for weeks, however, and if a large group arrives to Valkenburg together for the final time, the three-time world champion cannot be discounted.

Three-star favorites

Greg Van Avermaet, BMC Racing
Philippe Gilbert, BMC Racing
Cadel Evans, BMC RAcing
Andy Schleck, RadioShack-Nissan
Damiano Cunego, Lampre-ISD
Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Barracuda
Thomas Voeckler, Europcar
Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas-Cannondale
Sylvain Chavanel, Omega Pharma-Quick Step

Two-star favorites

Robert Gesink, Rabobank
Matti Breschel, Rabobank
Rinaldo Nocentini, Ag2r La Mondiale
Thomas Dekker, Garmin-Barracuda
Giovanni Visconti, Movistar
Maxime Monfort, RadioShack-Nissan

Notable Absentees

Fabian Cancellara, RadioShack-Nissan: fractured collarbone
David Millar (Garmin-Barracuda): fractured collarbone
Tom Boonen, Omega Pharma-Quick Step: tendonitis
Tejay van Garderen, BMC Racing: not selected
Nicolas Roche, Ag2r La Mondiale: not selected
Alexander Vinokourov, Astana: not selected
Christian Vande Velde, Garmin-Barracuda: not selected
Michele Scarponi, Lampre-ISD: not selected
Laurens Ten Dam, Rabobank: not selected
Jens Voigt, RadioShack-Nissan: not selected

North Americans

Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Garmin-Barracuda
Chris Horner (USA), RadioShack-Nissan

Race notes

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, with a high of 51 degrees Fahrenheit and a 10-percent chain of precipitation.

Worlds preview: Sunday’s race finishes atop the Cauberg climb, above Valkenburg, site of the 2012 world championships. The worlds finish lies a further kilometer down the road, on a mostly-straight, gentle downhill (think a false flat in reverse). The course for the worlds follows with a few exceptions the route used in the 1998 world championships and while the difference is just a kilometer, the alternative finish will dramatically change the nature of the finale in September.

Read also: ‘Spanish armada’ locked and loaded for Ardennes

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