Amstel Gold Race: At 40, Dutch race finally a classic
When does a classic become a classic? That question has often been asked about the Amstel Gold Race because it wasn’t founded until 1966. That’s 72 years after the oldest of the classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and even 30 years after the youngest spring classic, the Flèche Wallonne. But now that the Dutch race has reached its 40th anniversary, most people in the sport agree that Amstel Gold (which is actually "a sturdy, full-flavored bock beer" brewed by Heineken’s Amstel brewery in Maastricht) is finally a true classic. That certainly wasn’t the case with the first edition. Original race
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By John Wilcockson
When does a classic become a classic? That question has often been asked about the Amstel Gold Race because it wasn’t founded until 1966. That’s 72 years after the oldest of the classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and even 30 years after the youngest spring classic, the Flèche Wallonne.
But now that the Dutch race has reached its 40th anniversary, most people in the sport agree that Amstel Gold (which is actually “a sturdy, full-flavored bock beer” brewed by Heineken’s Amstel brewery in Maastricht) is finally a true classic. That certainly wasn’t the case with the first edition.
Original race organizer Hermann Krott decided to hold the 1966 race on April 30, the birthday of the then Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Krott was hoping that the big crowds attending the Queen’s Birthday celebrations in many of the villages on the race route would boost attendance for his event. Unfortunately, the parties blocked many of the roads and the race had to be diverted several times and ended up being 302km long instead of the planned 230km!
The winner of that first, very lengthy Amstel Gold Race was, appropriately enough, Frenchman Jean Stablinski. A coal miner before becoming a pro bike racer, Stablinski excelled at marathon-distance races and holds a unique place in cycling history as winner of the longest-ever edition of the world pro road championship: 296.2km, at Salo, Italy, in 1962.
Seven years after the first Amstel Gold Race, the event attained the first accolade in its long path toward acceptance as a classic when, on a day of cold rain and sleet, Belgians Eddy Merckx and Frans Verbeeck made an epic two-man break in the short, steep hills of Limburg. Merckx won that edition and repeated his victory in 1975.
There were only three Dutch winners in the event’s first decade, but then the home country’s best-ever classics rider, Jan Raas, took five wins in six years — leading scribes to rename it the Amstel Gold Raas.
In the decade following Raas’s final win, eight more Dutch riders came out on top. Those successes increased the event’s popularity with the local fans, but they lessened Amstel Gold’s claims to being a true international classic. However, the sequence of home wins ended with Frans Maassen in 1991.
In the 14 years since then there have been only two Dutch winners: Michael Boogerd (in a photo-finish sprint with Lance Armstrong) in 1999 and Erik Dekker (also over Armstrong) in 2001. Boogerd has placed top 10 at Amstel in each of the past seven years, and since the finish was moved to the Cauberg summit three years ago, he has finished second every time — behind Danilo Di Luca last year, Davide Rebellin in 2004 and Alexander Vinokourov in 2003.
The status of these recent winners, along with the past victories by Tour de France champions Bjarne Riis (1997), Joop Zoetemelk (1987), Bernard Hinault (1981) and Eddy Merckx (1973 and ’75) have all been among the ingredients that have gained acceptance for this excellent spring classic.
The race’s popularity was emphasized this past Thursday when Boogerd’s Rabobank team did a 200km training ride on the Amstel Gold course. They were accompanied by team director Maassen (the 1961 winner) and a horde of Dutch media, including reporters, photographers and a TV crew. At one point, an oncoming motorist was distracted by a photographer and almost swerved into the small group of riders.
“It was a circus,” Maassen said. “It underscores how great the expectations are for the Amstel Gold Race. The pressure is always on our team with this Limburg classic. Now that he haven’t yet won any big classic [this year], there will be only one place that counts for us.”
First place is clearly attainable for Rabobank. Boogerd, 33, would like to add a second win after his string of near-misses, while the veteran Dekker, 35, would also love to win again in his final season. If the race ends in a mass sprint up the Cauberg, Rabobank will play the card of three-time world champ Oscar Freire, who has ascendant form, while the thousands of Dutch fans will be hoping that 23-year-old Thomas Dekker, winner of last month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, can use his uphill speed to cause an upset.
Should a rider in the orange-and-blue of Rabobank climb atop the podium on Sunday evening, you can be sure that he’ll be celebrated with multiple rounds of Amstel Gold. But don’t go looking for a bottle of the gold-colored brew at your local liquor store; Heineken says that Amstel Gold is only available in the Netherlands. Just like the race. A true classic.
Details: 41st Amstel Gold Race. Eighth race of 2006 UCI ProTour. Sunday, April 16. 253km. Starts in Maastricht, 31 hills including, in the final 30km, the Gulperberg, Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg, Keutenberg and the finish on the Cauberg at Valkenburg.
2006 UCI ProTour standings (before Amstel Gold Race)
1. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 129pts
2. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Fondatil, 105
3. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC, 84
4. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Milram, 72
5. Antonio Colom (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears, 71
6. Filippo Pozzato (I), Quick Step-Innergetic, 70
7. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, 60
8. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 59
9. José Gomez Marchante (Sp), Saunier Duval-Prodir, 53
10. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak-iShares, 52
1. CSC (Dk), 95pts
2. Discovery Channel (USA), 93
3. Gerolsteiner (G), 93
4. Quick Step-Innergetic (B), 91
5. Rabobank (Nl), 85