Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
By Neal Rogers
The second phase of the Spring Classics season begins Sunday with the 42nd running of the Amstel Gold Race on a 252km route of three differing but concentric circuits that begin in the city of Maastricht and end in nearby Valkenberg.
Left behind with the cobbled classics are the unseasonable heat and dust of Paris-Roubaix; the weather forecast for Sunday’s race through the rolling green hills of Dutch Limburg in the southeastern Netherlands is 74 degrees and sunny.
Also absent will be the majority of hard men who spent the past few weeks racing over the cobblestones of Belgium and northern France, to be replaced by specialists for the hilly classics and grand-tour climbers who can summon short bursts of power. In place of the recurring sections of pavé found at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are Amstel’s 31 bergs — steep, punchy climbs that culminate with a third trip up the 12-percent pitches of the 750-meter-long Cauberg that ends the race.
Like the Amstel Gold Race and its hilltop finish on the Cauberg, the Ardennes classics that follow also end atop steep climbs — the Mur de Huy for the Flèche Wallonne and the Montée d’Ans for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. What distinguishes Amstel Gold from the others are its narrow, serpentine roads, loud fans and roundabouts and other obstacles in the road that keep riders fighting for position from beginning to end.
“There’s hardly five kilometers of flat road on the whole route and that’s what makes it so difficult,” said T-Mobile sporting director Valerio Piva.
Or, as Discovery Channel assistant team director Dirk Demol told VeloNews in 2005, “It’s a shit course with a thousand turns.”
Underlining the difficulty of the Amstel Gold Race is the fact that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong made the event part of his early-season Tour preparation and yet never won the hilly classic; he twice finished second to hometown favorites —Michael Boogerd, in 1999, and Erik Dekker, in 2001. Though Quick Step-Innergetic’s Paolo Bettini has never won the Amstel Gold Race, its challenging course seems tailor made for the current world road champion, who placed eighth last year and third in 2004.
Wearing race No. 1 at Amstel Gold will be CSC’s Fränk Schleck, a rider many have pegged as a Tour de France podium contender in years to come. Last year CSC backed up Fabian Cancellara’s win at Roubaix with Schleck’s break-through win at Amstel Gold. Coming into this year’s edition, the team is still buzzing about Stuart O’Grady’s solo win at the Roubaix velodrome, and will look to Schleck and Karsten Kroon to repeat the double from 2006.
Over the past 10 years no team has faced more pressure at the Amstel Gold Race than home team Rabobank, which has placed a rider on the Amstel podium every year since 1988, with two wins, five second places and two thirds. Perhaps Rabobank’s perennial favorite Boogerd, who recently announced he will retire at season’s end, will take the win and cap off a run at Amstel that included a win in 1999 ahead of Lance Armstrong and second-place finishes behind Alexander Vinokourov in 2003, Davide Rebellin in 2004 and Danilo Di Luca in 2005. Boogerd will ride knowing he has an ace up his sleeve in three-time world champ Oscar Freire, who placed 10th in 2005 and 17th last year.
Both Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Di Luca (Liquigas) return as heavy favorites — particularly Rebellin, who will have German Stefan Schumacher, ninth last year, riding as a wild card. The 2003 winner Vinokourov (Astana) will not start, instead choosing to save himself for Liège.
As Di Luca, Rebellin and Vinokourov have proved in the past, racers coming off the Tour of the Basque Country tend to fare well at Amstel Gold. If history proves to repeat itself, look for two of the Basque Country’s Spanish overall podium finishers Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) to lay down dangerous attacks in the final kilometers.
Another rider sure to animate the race is 23-year-old Italian Ricardo Riccò, who animated March’s Milan-San Remo and Tirreno-Adriatico. Ricco’s Spanish teammate Angel Marchante will be a valuable aid, while their Italian teammate Gilberto Simoni is currently racing the Tour de Georgia, and is expected to join the team at Flèche and Liège.
Another race favorite is Caisse d’Épargne’s Spanish sensation Alejandro Valverde, winner of the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year.
“These classics are the first big objective of my season,” Valverde said. “I chose to prepare by taking part in the Tour of the Basque Country and I think it was the right choice. The race was very hard, with mountains every day, and long stages many riders wanted to win. The rhythm was very high every day. I think it has been the ideal preparation in sight of the three difficult classics. I took advantage of this past week to rest and recover. It will be very difficult to do as well as I did last year, but I will have a strong team at my side and I hope to be able to win one of the three.”
T-Mobile will bring Michael Rogers, Kim Kirchen and Patrik Sinkewitz, fifth at last year’s Amstel Gold Race, to give the team options no matter how the race unfolds.
“Kim impressed with his performances and podium places at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Brabantse Pijl,” said T-Mobile assistant director Valerio Piva. Rogers is returning to competition after injuring a knee at last week’s Tour of the Basque Country.
“Though the race is relatively easy to read, it’s a real leg-breaker,” Sinkewitz said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve already raced here 100 times, it won’t help you unless you’ve got really good legs.”
Rounding out T-Mobile’s eight-man roster in Limburg are all-rounders Michael Barry and Thomas Ziegler and cobble specialists Marcus Burghardt, Andreas Klier and Lorenzo Bernucci. T-Mobile’s Aaron Olsen, the only American on the start sheet, is listed as an alternate and is not expected to race.
Absent from the start in Maastricht will be former Giro d’Italia winners Ivan Basso (Discovery Channel) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) — who finished fourth overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. Both riders are expected to ride Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 29 as preparation for next month’s Giro.
Tour of Flanders champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) will skip the Amstel Gold Race after his team reported the Italian is suffering from a fever. Erik Zabel (Milram), who crashed hard at Flanders and was forced out of Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix, will start Amstel, his team reported. Zabel returned to competition with seventh place at Wednesday’s Schelde GP.
In addition to 20 ProTour teams — yes, the Swedish/Belgian Unibet.com squad will race in The Netherlands — the three wild-card teams are Belgium’s Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen, Germany’s Wiesenhof-Felt and the local Dutch team, Skil-Shimano.
Recent Amstel Gold Race winners1997 – Bjarne Riis (Dk) 1998 – Rolf Järmann (Swi) 1999 – Michael Boogerd (Nl) 2000 – Erik Zabel (G) 2001 – Erik Dekker (Nl) 2002 – Michele Bartoli (I) 2003 – Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) 2004 – Davide Rebellin (I) 2005 – Danilo Di Luca (I) 2006 – 1. Frank Schleck (Lux)
2. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), at 0:22
3. Michael Boogerd (Nl), at 0:46
4. Karsten Kroon (Nl), at 0:48
5. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), at 0:48