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By Andrew Hood
When most people think of Holland, they think cheese, windmills and tulips. Maastricht is all that, plus some surprisingly tough hills, that, when packed in tight make for a formidable challenge for the 36th Amstel Gold Race on Saturday, the fifth leg of the 2001 World Cup.
While the hills, or beklimmingen in Dutch, at only a few hundred meters each hardly rival the giants of racing lore, 29 climbs over the 254km (152-mile) course at breakneck World Cup speed can prove punishing.
In the tradition of the spring classics, weather forecasts call for a cold, blustery day with a chance of showers for Saturday’s 10:15 a.m. start. Perfect weather for a bike race.
The usual suspects top the list of protagonists, but the Amstel Gold race is a hard one to predict. Riders will be attacking relentlessly off the start and the bunch typically sets a brutal pace to check any pretenders.
Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd ranks as the hometown favorite. Thousands of Dutch fans will be dressed in orange to cheer on Boogerd, the Dutch national hero who narrowly beat Lance Armstrong in 1999 and was second last year. Backed up by Markus Zberg and Erik Dekker, Boogerd will be on the march.
Telekom’s Erik Zabel, a winner here last year, will be looking to repeat. Domo comes with a strong team, including Servais Knaven, Johan Museeuw, Romans Vainsteins and American Fred Rodriguez, and the Belgian squad will be trying to repeat its podium sweep at Paris-Roubaix.
Lampre’s Oscar Camenzind, a winner at Liege-Bastogne-Liege last week, and CSC-World Online’s Rolf Sorensen, riding strong in the closing years of his career, will likely be in the hunt as well.
U.S. Postal’s George Hincapie will be looking for his first World Cup win in his last race on center stage before stepping back into the role of backing up Armstrong for July’s Tour de France. Hincapie posted a huge breakthrough win at Ghent-Wevelgem and was fourth at Paris-Roubaix. Armstrong is always a wildcard in a race like this. Riding strong throughout the spring and still smarting from his narrow loss to Boogerd in 1999, Armstrong will take his chance if it presents itself.
Several teams will be looking to make an impression, particularly with the final four Tour de France wildcard spots to be named next week. Mercury-Viatel’s Peter Van Petegem will have Americans Chann McRae and Floyd Landis backing him up. The team is feeling the pressure to post a strong race to impress Tour de France officials.
Adding sparks to Saturday’s race will be the race for the wide-open overall World Cup lead. With a different winner in each of the opening four rounds of the 10-race series, only 17 points separates the top six riders. A win by any of the top-10 riders in the overall standings would catapult them into a comfortable lead as the World Cup series goes into a holding pattern until August.
The race course was altered to avoid areas infected by the foot-and-mouth disease that is ravaging Europe. Race officials also imposed strict restrictions on race personnel and press. All vehicles will be disinfected before being allowed on course. No word on whether the cyclists will get a once-over.
Also, the Amstel Gold will be hosting a women’s race for the first time.