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With a perfectly timed sprint on the Cauberg climb, Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto won the Amstel Gold Race Sunday, edging out Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Three-time world road champion Oscar Freire (Katusha), who launched an audacious solo attack with 6km remaining, was caught 50 meters from the finish but held on to finish fourth. French rider Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) finished fifth, while defending champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) was sixth.
The win in Valkenberg, The Netherlands, was the biggest of Gasparatto’s career after finishing third in the race two years ago; his other top results include a stage win at the 2007 Giro d’Italia and the 2005 Italian national road championship.
“[In 2010] I was too slow in the last 20 meters, and this year I remembered that,” Gasparatto said. “I was really concentrated for the race today, I’ve always felt it’s a good course for me.”
Perhaps as notable as the top finishers were the riders not among those fighting for the win. Pre-race favorites Rodriguez and Alessandro Valverde did not finish in the top 20; Frank Schleck finished 12th while Andy Schleck finished 91st, 5:39 back; and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans abandoned with 75km to go. Evans’ BMC Racing team issued a brief audio interview with the Tour champ, citing an ongoing illness as the reason for his lack of performance.
The 257km race, with its winding, undulating roads and 31 climbs, was marked by a nine-rider breakaway that braved the cold and windy race conditions. Among those in the breakaway was American neo-pro Alex Howes, the Garmin-Barracuda rider who rode impressively last week at Brabantse Pijl, where he finished sixth.
Along with Howes in the break was his Dutch teammate, Raymond Kreder, as well as Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale), Pello Bilbao (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Steven Caethoven (Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda’s), Cedric Pineau (FDJ-BigMat), Simone Stortoni (Lampre-ISD), Sébastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) and Eliot Lietar (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator).
Following a nature break within the main group, the nine-man escape opened up a maximum advantage of 13 minutes before the peloton, led by BMC Racing, RadioShack-Nissan and Katusha, began chasing in earnest.
With 100km remaining, the gap had come down to seven minutes, and as the peloton crested the finishing Cauberg climb for the second of three trips, the gap was below five minutes.
Evans was among a group of riders gapped off over the Cauberg, and with his team bus in plain view, the Tour champ pulled the plug.
“I’ve had a bad last nine or 10 days, I’ve had some problems with an infection,” Evans said. “I didn’t know if I would be good here or not, but I was not good enough to be competitive. I was not able to help the guys in the final today. Hopefully I will come around for Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège to be useful for the team. And for me personally, I hope to be good for the (April 24) Tour of Romandie.”
With 30km remaining, the course still had eight tough climbs to deliver — Wolfsberg, Loorberg, Gulperberg, Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg, Keutenberg, and the finish atop the Cauberg.
The breakaway group worked together smoothly until, with the gap reduced to just three minutes, Bardet attacked on Loorberg with 36km remaining. That move split the front group to four — Bardet, Bilbao, Howes, and Stortoni.
With 23km to go and five climbs remaining the gap from the dwindling peloton to the leaders was down to just 45 seconds, while jostling for position in the main bunch was in full force, with BMC Racing leading the charge.
Another Bardet attack on the Kruisberg shed everyone but Howes. Bardet also briefly gapped off Howes over the Eyserbosweg climb, but the 24-year-old American showed his resilience, clawing his way back to Bardret and even attacking prior to the penultimate climb, the steep Keutenberg, which averages 9.4 percent over 700 meters. It was a last hurrah, however for the Garmin rider, who was caught over the top of the steep climb while Bardet charged on alone.
With 10km to go Sagan and Voeckler attempted to bridge across to Bardet, but the 25-strong bunch, led by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, negated the move, bringing the pair back and finally reeling in the AG2R rider.
At 6km to go Freire attacked the bunch and went solo, opening a maximum gap of 12 seconds, a perfect set up for his teammate Rodriguez, who finished second to Gilbert on the Cauberg last year. Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider Niki Terpstra attempted to bridge across to Friere but was caught on the lead-in to the Cauberg.
At the base of the climb it was Gilbert, who has won the two previous editions of the race, who emerged at the front of the chase group. But the Belgian national champion, sensing that Freire was riding away with the win, launched his sprint too early and faded in the final 100 meters.
So intense was the effort up the steep ramps of the Cauberg that Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego crashed into each other, while Freire detonated in the final 100 meters. Sagan came around Gilbert and led the charge to the line, however Gasparotto came through in the final 25 meters to just edge out Vanendert, with Sagan third.
In part owing to the crash behind him, Freire managed to hold on to fourth.
“I have always been working for the others in these races,” Gasparotto said. “In 2009, I was working for Damiano [Cunego], and I had my best legs that year. Today I was following the wheels, because I knew I couldn’t beat a guy like Sagan in a sprint. Luckily, I was kind of an underdog and BMC had to do the work to bring back Freire.”
Though Vanendert banged his fist against his handlebar in frustration, the Belgian was philosophical about his runner-up status, saying, “’I’ve always believed I can win this race, but I have to do it to prove it. Today gives me high hopes for the future.”
Perhaps more disappointed was Freire, who looked poised to pull off a shock victory at the bottom of the Cauberg. “I tried to win today. I think the last climb was too hard for me,” he said. “Sometimes when you know it’s the moment, you have to try. I was alone for a long time, and there was a lot of headwind. Had the wind been from the side, it would have been better for me. In a group, you can recover against the wind, but not when you’re alone. When I shifted into my small ring (on the Cauberg), my legs almost exploded. I was 200 meters too short.”
After finishing fourth at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem and fifth at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Sagan, 22, could only shake his head in frustration over another missed opportunity for a classic victory. “I’m close all the time, but we have to work to get a win in one of these big classics,” he said. “I’m still very young, so what I need is more experience to win one of these big classics.”