*** See the race live on CYCLING.TV***
The Amstel Gold is a bit of a baby, as far as classics go; the Primavera goes back to 1907; Flanders to 1913 and Roubaix to 1896. For The Netherlands biggest bike race it’s a relatively recent 1966; when France’s Jean Stablinski took the honours. This year will be edition 44 of the race that bears the name of Amsterdam’s main river and – of course – the golden beer.
Held mainly in the lumpy province of Limburg, the route has been much changed over the years, but some things haven’t changed; the sinuous nature of the course, the proliferation of small climbs – 32 this year – and the potentially dangerous lay of the land.
The Limburg region in southeast Holland hilly, beautiful, and a great place for a bike race.
Much of the course is urban, with speed bumps, bollards, ramps and lots of road furniture. In fact, Scotland’s Tour de France star, Robert Millar referred to it as ‘The Tour of the Roundabouts!’
The Amstel Gold Race – 258kms, 31 climbs, and countless Dutch pils consumed by the fans – the Ardennes Classics are about to begin.
Back in the 70’s the ‘classics were the classics’ and the same names which you’ll see on the roles of honour in the cobbled classics can be seen at the Amstel – Belgians: Verbeeck, Merckx and Maertens and Breton Hinault are all there. As is home boy, Jan Raas, five times winner and ‘record man’ with five wins, including four in a row – ‘The Amstel Gold Raas,’ was the joke of the day.
Mr. Amstel Gold Raas.
The home riders used to jealously guard victory on their home tarmac; between 1977 and 1991 they only allowed foreigners to slip them three times – Hinault in ’81, Aussie, Phil Anderson in ’83 and Belgium’s forgotten classics star, Eric Van Lancker in ’89.
Belgium’s forgotten Classics star: Eric Van Lancker.
Perhaps it’s the recent ‘mondialisation’ of pro cycling, but there hasn’t been a home winner since Michael Boogerd in 1999; albeit ‘Boogie’ packed in another four second places and two thirds into the next decade.
Jan Raas might be the winningest Amstel racer ever, but Michael Boogerd sure did make it his playground – 8 podiums in ten years!
As well as the demise of the home winner, the race has become increasingly the playground of the specialist climbers and powerful, acrobatic riders who can survive the succession of short, steep rises which infest the parcours.
The Cauberg stands between the rider and victory. Better be explosive uphill if you want to win here.
Notably, the savage Cauberg ramp, atop which the race concludes – if you can’t climb, you can’t win – it’s that simple.
Cunego, Schleck, and Valverde are all riders to watch this weekend.
To find the favourites, one need look no further than last year’s Amstel; all of the podium finishers – winner, Damiano Cunego (Lampre & Italy), runner-up, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank & Luxembourg) and third-placed Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D’Epargne & Spain) are back and any one of them could win.
Cunego took the top spot last year. He won convincingly in the sprint.
Cunego has hit the ground running this year, determined to dispel the ‘he’s a classics man now’ moniker that the media has given him; his focus is on a repeat of his 2004 Giro win. Two stage wins and the GC in the Settimana Coppi-Bartali stage race confirm that the form is good – if there’s a small group at the end and he’s there, it’s hard to name someone who can beat him up the Cauberg. The fact that he has a Giro standard Lampre squadra to back him speaks for itself.
Frank Schleck has already tasted victory on the Cauberg.
Schleck took the honours here in 2006 and his tall thin frame is ideally suited to the parcours; a stage win in the Tour of California, consistent stage placings in the Paris – Nice and a second on GC don’t leave us guessing about his condition.
It’s a tough task for anyone to take Valverde in a select group sprint.
Valverde goes on winning, despite the Fuentes saga – which seems set to prevent his riding the Tour – hanging over his head. Two stages in Castilla y Leon stage race and the Klasika Primavera are already listed for 2009 on the sad palmares websites which are inhabited by people like me.
Joaquin Rodriguez is due for some big success. Perhaps he can profit from Valverde’s presence the same as Devolder has with Boonen?
His ‘campanero’ Joaquin Rodriguez is a ‘third thief’ who could win this race for Caisse, if the big guns marking each other cancel themselves out. Oh and there’s that other Caisse rider, Luis Leon Sanchez – he has a stage of the Basque Country, a stage at Paris-Nice, the overall at Paris-Nice, plus the honor of being one of the few who have beaten Alberto Contador in a stage race. Caisse d’Epargne will be a team to watch.
Just off the podium last year was Diquigiovanni’s Davide Rebellin; it was 1991 when the Peter Pan of pro bike racing first came to our attention, finishing second in the world amateur road race championship to long forgotten Ukrainian Rjaksinski. And one year later when the Italian signed his first pro contract – he had originally considered the priesthood.
You’d be a fool to overlook Rebellin at any point during the next week.
Some 17 years later he’s already won two stages in the Ruta Del Sol and had top six GC finishes in the Settimana Ciclista Lombarda and Tirreno- Adriatico; let him slip away and he could repeat his 2004 win (the year he pulled off a unique Amstel/Fleche/Liege treble.) Teammate and countryman, Michele Scarponi won the Tirreno – Adriatico with his climbing; he’ll be at least a strong ally for ‘Tin Tin’ – as Rebellin is known – on the roads of Limburg.
After a podium finish at the Tour of the Basque Country, you have to give Sammy Sanchez a nod as a candidate at Amstel Gold.
A man who can climb and sprint with the ‘heads’ and is one of the absolute best descenders, is Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel and Spain) he took the points jersey in the recent Pais Vasco and a win at the GP Llodio – give the man from Oviedo a gap and he’s exceedingly hard to fetch back.
Vincenzo Nibali looks set for a big time victory in 2009 – the only question is where will it be?
The cosmo Liquigas trio of Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic), Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Aleksandr Kuschynski (Belarus) give the men on the Cannondales a lot of options; the first two had form coming nicely to the boil in the Pais Vasco, whilst it was the Belarusian who lit the blue touch paper in Gent – Wevelgem.
The same goes for their other young gun Roman Kreuziger. The Tour de Suisse was a great start…what’s next?
Silence-Lotto has Aussie Cadel Evans, who should be at home on this parcours; a win here would appease the Belgian media for Silence’s lack lustre start to 2009– or maybe it’s too late? Stage wins in the Coppi-Bartali can’t be described as lucky, and he’s had one, so the legs must be good.
Cadel Evans has Silence’s only 2009 success. He’ll be heading to Amstel with solid form – so will his teammate Philippe Gilbert.
Whilst on the subject of ‘worth a mention Aussies’ the man who was 12th here last year, Simon Gerrans (Cervelo) should at least crack the top ten – all of those Cervelo men are flying this year, and Gerrans has openly stated Amstel as a target.
Cervelo will be looking to continue their insanely successful Spring season – Simon Gerrans could be next on the list to keep that feeling of success rolling along.
The bottom line? For me, it’s between Cunego and Valverde, with the Italian coming out on top – but then I said that Boonen would win at Roubaix.