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By John Wilcockson
To celebrate the 40th edition of the Amstel Gold Race, the Dutch organizers are hosting this weekend as many of the past winners as could come. Among those who could accept the invitation are the inaugural 1966 winner Frenchman Jean Stablinski, now a septuagenarian, and the event’s most prolific winner, Dutchman Jan Raas, who won the race five times between 1977 and 1982.
The Amstel champion who has traveled the farthest, literally from halfway around the world, is 1983 winner Phil Anderson. “This is the first time I’ve been back since I retired,” said the bronzed Aussie, who’s growing his hair long again and is training to run a 46-mile ultra-marathon in a month’s time back home on the coast of southeast Australia.
Anderson, along with all the other past winners, was asked to join Saturday’s 12,000 enthusiasts who rode the Amstel Gold Race course. “I woke up and saw the rain, and turned over,” Anderson said. “I went for a run later. As soon as I retired from racing I started running, but this will be my first ultra-marathon.”
The rain eased up Saturday afternoon, but the temperature remained in the mid-40s under cloudy skies. More of the same is expected Sunday. And if it rains again, the 194 starters will have a hellacious day. “It’s a shit course with a thousand turns,” commented Discovery Channel directeur sportif Dirk Demol.
“Yeah, you’ve got to be an acrobat to ride this course,” added Anderson, “particularly when the peloton is still together; and the speed bumps, the traffic islands and the roundabouts are much worse today than when I was racing.”
What is the same, though, is the terrain. The Netherlands is one of the flattest countries in Europe, but the Limburg region where the Amstel Gold Race takes place is the exception. By mapping an intricate course of three loops that double back on themselves, the race organizers manage to include 31 climbs in the 250.7km distance.
The highest, at 1050 feet above sea level, is hill No. 11, the Drielandenpunt (“the three-country point”), where Dutch, German and Belgian territory comes together. The steepest is No. 30, the Keutenberg, 10km from the finish, which has a 20-percent-plus pitch toward its narrow summit. And the most famous is the Cauberg, which the field will climb three times: No. 6 at 64km, No. 21 at 171km and No. 31 at the finish.
This will be only the third year that the Cauberg, which has some 14-percent pitches, is being included as the finish. Two years ago, it gave rise to a victory by Alex Vinokourov after he made a solo attack on a twisting downhill with 4km to go.
Last year, two riders split from a small front group on hill No. 29, the windswept Fromberg, 15km from the finish, with Davide Rebellin taking the win after he countered Michael Boogerd’s charge on the long climb to the line. Eighteen seconds behind them, Paolo Bettini sprinted home in third ahead of fellow Italian Danilo Di Luca.
Twelve months later, the 2005 protagonists are expected to again be in at the kill. Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) is on similar form after coming in third at last week’s Tour of the Basque Country. Furthermore, he has declared that he’s eager to win the inaugural UCI ProTour, of which the Amstel is race No. 8.
The five-day Basque race was won by Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi), who took that race thanks to his sprinting ability, both on the flat and the uphill stage finishes. The former darling of the tifosi is now a far more mature rider than the baby-faced 25-year-old who won what is still his only success in an international classic, the Tour of Lombardy, in 2001.
As for Bettini (Quick Step), the three-time World Cup champion, he’s capable of winning any of the three classics in the coming eight days: Sunday’s Amstel, Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne or next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. There’s also less pressure than usual on Bettini and his Quick Step team after his Belgian teammate Tom Boonen took the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix the past two Sundays.
As for Boogerd, his performance depends on how the race plays out, as besides banking on his formidable record here (three times second since he won the race in 1999) the consistent Dutch rider could favor any one of three Rabobank teammates: 2001 winner Erik Dekker (who also is making the ProTour his season goal); world champion Oscar Freire (who loves power finishes); and the rookie Thomas Dekker (who could surprise everyone should team tactics come into play).
The other main favorites Sunday are two other young men ready to win their first major classic: Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), who has won many races in uphill sprints in his brief career; and German Matthias Kessler, who was sixth in last year’s Amstel and has the huge incentive of trying to give his T-Mobile squad its long-overdue opening victory of 2005.
Among the many outsiders is American George Hincapie, fresh of his second place at Paris-Roubaix last Sunday. His team director here, Demol, told VeloNews: “George was dead until Thursday. But he’s now riding like a new man. The course suits him and this is his last race of the spring. So, I can only hope that, yes, he has the incentive to put in a good ride.”
Also riding for Discovery on Sunday are Canadian Ryder Hejsedal and American Patrick McCarty. No other North Americans are in the field.
These are the VeloNews picks for the race:
5 stars:Michael Boogerd, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin4 stars: Alejandro Valverde, Matthias Kessler3 stars: Paolo Bettini, Erik Dekker, Thomas Dekker, Oscar Freire, 2 stars: Ivan Basso, Laurent Brochard, Kim Kirchen, Filippo Pozzato1 star: Alessandro Ballan, Sylvain Chavanel, Mirko Celestino, David Etxebarria, George Hincapie, Axel Merckx, Alex Vinokourov, Jens Voigt.