Andrew Hood previews the upcoming week’s Euro action
It’s time for pedal-bashers like Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder to head to the beach. For anyone with some gas left in the tank, there’s still some unfinished business at Sheldeprijs, typically the final sendoff for riders like Boonen before they take a break ahead of new goals later this season. After that, the whippet-thin climbers and hilly course specialists step center stage to dominate headlines for the hilly classics of eastern Belgium and southern Holland through the end of April.
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By Andrew Hood
It’s time for pedal-bashers like Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder to head to the beach.
For anyone with some gas left in the tank, there’s still some unfinished business at Sheldeprijs, typically the final sendoff for riders like Boonen before they take a break ahead of new goals later this season.
After that, the whippet-thin climbers and hilly course specialists step center stage to dominate headlines for the hilly classics of eastern Belgium and southern Holland through the end of April.
The Amstel Gold Race on Sunday is the week’s big attraction. There’s plenty of other racing this week, especially across France, but there’s a big hole in the calendar — no stage race.
The collapse of the Vuelta a Aragon, held this week until it fell on hard times back in 2005, leaves the stage racers cooling their jets. Perhaps giving everyone a breather isn’t such a bad idea, either.
Wednesday, April 15
97th Scheldeprijs (Bel, 1.HC)
Last year, Mark Cavendish squirted past a celebrating Tom Boonen to win this mid-week semi-classic for the second year running.
The Manxster isn’t expected to line up, perhaps leaving Piet Oelibrandt’s record safe for another year. Boonen, another two-time winner, has decided to hold off his Paris-Roubaix celebrations until Wednesday.
The mostly flat 204km course opens with a 156km out-and-back loop before concluding on a 16km finishing loop. A mass gallop is almost always assured.
Thursday, April 16
50th GP de Denain (Fra, 1.1)
Another leg of the French Cup series, the 202.7km course near Calais is another fight over short but steep hills before what’s usually a mass gallop.
Last year’s winner and recently crowned Ghent-Wevelgem champ Edvald Boasson Hagen (Columbia-Highroad) is back to defend his title, but will be highly marked.
Jimmy Casper, winner of the Paris-Camembert on Tuesday, will be another favorite at this event that draws all the top French sprinters.
Alessandro Petacchi (LPR) will be looking to bolster his confidence and test his train ahead of next month’s Giro d’Italia.
Saturday, April 18
12th GP Nobili Rubinetterie/Borgomanero (Ita, 1.1)
The 191.7km course from Suno to Arona opens with a 27km run starting in Suno before hitting a finishing circuit of 10 laps on a 16km loop in Arona. A 200m climb each lap and a highly technical course typically delivers an exciting and unpredictable race. Damiano Cunego is a two-time winner while Giampaolo Cheula took the honors in 2008.
Sunday, April 19
44th Amstel Gold Race (Ned, PT)
This is the mack-daddy race on the Dutch calendar. It’s Holland’s most important event and Dutch team Rabobank does its best to try to dominate the demanding, 258.6km course (though they haven’t won since Erik Dekker in 2001).
Held in the hilly Limburg region in southern Holland, Amstel Gold often gets bundled with next week’s Flèche and Liège races to create what pundits like to call “Ardennes week.” Though geographically distinct than the nearby Belgian Ardennes, the Limburg region serves up a similarly endless menu of steep, narrow climbs.
Any race named after a beer should be a big party and tens of thousands of beer-guzzling Dutch fans turn up to line the endless string of bergs and clog outdoor beer gardens to cheer on the pack as they ply treacherously narrow roads.
The course starts in the main square at Maastricht and, since 2003, ends atop the Cauberg climb just above Valkenberg (site of another huge party).
The route map looks like a plate of spaghetti, with four loops tracing back and forth over deceptively steep climbs. An endless string of 31 climbs are wickedly steep, with Keutenberg featuring ramps as steep as 20 percent.
Coupled with the narrow roads, strong winds and the danger of crashing, Amstel is one of the season’s most nerve-wracking races.
The addition of the Cauberg finish dramatically altered the race dynamics. The finish used to be on the flats alongside the Maas River, giving teams a chance to regroup after the last climb and position their sprinters for a sometimes-large group sprint.
There will be plenty of contenders. Defending champ Damiano Cunego (Lampre) will be back to battle against former winners Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni).
Rabobank will count on the services of Oscar Freire, back in competition after breaking two ribs at the Tour of California in February. Freire abandoned the Vuelta al País Vasco last week, but vows to race Sunday as well as compete in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège next week in a helper role to regain fitness. Nick Nuyens and Robert Gesink will lead the home-crowd favorites.
26th Tro-Bro Léon (Fra, 1.1)
The busy week in France continues with the Tro-Bro Léon. The 204.2km course from l’Aber Wrac’h to Lannilis has delivered some unlikely winners. Last year, French veteran Frédéric Guesdon was back in the winner’s circle while 2007 saw Said Haddou take the trophy. French fastman Samuel Dumoulin won back-to-back in 2003-04 while Jacky Durand took one of his last pro wins in 2001.