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By Fred Dreier
Sunday’s menu calls for beer and bergs in southern Holland as the top riders in the world tackle the Amstel Gold Race, the hilly classic named for its sudsy title sponsor.
This marks the 44th running of Amstel, which, along with Belgium’s Fleche-Wallonne (April 22) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (April 26), comprises the Ardennes week of racing.
But while Belgium has already enjoyed a full week of Classics, the Netherlands has not. It’s no surprise that beer swilling Dutch cycling fans arrive en masse to watch their country’s premier cycling event.
“This race is the pride of the Dutch people,” said Peter Easton, whose VeloClassic tour outfit brings North American cycling fans to Holland for the race, as well as the popular citizen’s ride the day before the event.“I think in southern Holland people are even more fanatical about cycling than in other parts of the country, and this is their chance to show it.”
And with the race’s stacked lineup, it’s also the only chance Dutch cycling fans will get to see the who’s who of the peloton race in their country. Locals will undoubtedly be cheering loudest for Thomas Dekker (Silence-Lotto) Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank), as these men carry Holland’s hopes of reclaiming Amstel for the home country — Erik Dekker’s victory ahead of Lance Armstrong in 2001 marks the last Dutch victory here.
Their chances are slim, as Amstel packs a stacked field. Last year’s victor Damiano Cunego is here, headlining the list of favorites that includes Frank and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Periero (Caisse d’Epargne), Olympic champ Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Michael Rogers and Kim Kirchen (Columbia-High Road), Linus Gerdemann and Fabian Wegman (Milram), Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo Test Team) and Davide Rebellin (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni).
The American Garmin-Slipstream squad will also be looking for a result at the race with Dutchmen Ricardo Van der Velde, Hans Dekkers, Huub Duyn and Martijn Maaskant. Riding alongside the Dutchmen are Jason Donald, Ryder Hesjedal, Trent Lowe and Christian Meier.
Riders embark from the main square in downtown Maastricht, then head out on a series of twisting loops through the country’s hilly Limberg region. The 258.6 km course includes 31 punchy climbs, known to the Belgians as “bergs” but to the Dutch as “heuvels,” including the famous Eyerbosweg and Wolfsberg. The race ends atop the steep Cauberg in the nearby town of Valkenberg, and the hill traditionally creates the race’s final selection.
The presence of so many climbs ensures that the Amstels’ field is a blend of strong Classics workhorses and Grand Tour climbers. Whoever can withstand the leg sapping hills and arrive at the Cauberg with the most spring in his step is sure to take the win.
Last year it was Cunego, who followed an attack by Frank Schleck at the base of the Cauberg, then pipped the Luxembourger at the line for the victory.
Stay tuned to velo.outsideonline.com for news and updates from the Amstel Gold Race, including LIVE COVERAGE Sunday morning.