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PEZ Previews: The Amstel Gold Race
In Italy the Classics have beautiful names; ‘Primavera’ and ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’ – in France they simply name them after places, Tours, Paris, Roubaix – in Belgium it’s newspapers and road numbers, Het Nieuwsblad and E3. But in Holland, its beer – you have to respect that. Amstel Gold gives its name to one of the youngest and trickiest of all the Classics – it used to be the last of the Spring Classics but declining interest in the race lead to a re-jig of the calendar and now it’s the opener of the three ‘Ardennes’ races.

Before we get to the racing part - what about this Amstel Gold beer?

“Amstel Gold is a luxury beer with a pronounced taste, owing to a special mixture of barley malt. Its sturdy, full-flavour with the definite taste of fruit and hops and an alcohol content of 7% make it the perfect complement for any special occasion. Amstel Gold is only available in the Netherlands.”

Back to the topic at hand...

The race was first held in 1966 when French hard man Jean Stablinski won; since then some of the greatest names in the sport have triumphed in Holland’s only Classic – Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Bernard Hinault and Johan Museeuw all have it in their palmares.

Jan Raas - Mr. Amstel Gold.

But the record man for the event and who managed to get it named after him, rather than the other way round – the ‘Amstel Gold Raas’ - was Dutchman Jan Raas.

The wily man from Heinkenszand won five times between 1977 and 1982; with the locals continuing to dominate the race through the 80’s with Hanegraaf, Knetemann, Rooks, Zoetemelk, Nijdam, Van Der Poel and Maasen all topping the podium.

The last Dutch winner was Erik Dekker in 2001 and unless there’s a sensation this Sunday then it will be at least another year before his feat is equalled – but more of that in a moment.

Erik Dekker took the win in 2001 over one, Lance Armstrong.

The race has also attracted more than its fair share of ‘interesting’ winners in recent years – Riis, Zabel, Vinokourov, Rebellin, Di Luca, and Schumacher.

Maybe it’s that 7% alcohol content in the Amstel?

In recent years race distance has settled around the 250/260 kilometre mark – Stablinski had to ride 300 to win in ’66 – but there’s a hill for every eight kilometres of racing, some 31 in all.

Philippe Gilbert was untouchable last year.

This rules out the big men – except the real beasts like Merckx and Ludwig – and plays into the hands of the compact and powerful or tall and skinny; of the last half dozen winners Philippe Gilbert, Sergei Ivanov, Damiano Cunego, Stefan Schumacher and Danilo Di Luca fall into the former category with Frank Schleck in 2006 upholding the honour of those whose bikes have a head tube.

But the smaller guys have to be forceful riders too – at the lead in to every one of those 31 hills there will be a street brawl for position and shrinking violets need not apply.

And did we say that you have to be able to win an uphill sprint because it finishes atop the horrible Cauberg?

As well as assaulting the contour lines on the map the route is perhaps the most complicated of all the classics, winding around the Limburg region of the Netherlands like a demented ball of string unravelling.

Unusually for a classic there’s a huge urban element to the race with all of the hazards that brings; speed bumps, traffic islands, bollards, signs, chicanes – Robert Millar used to call it the ‘Tour of the roundabouts.’

It's a highly technical race and with all such races, experience counts; looking at last year’s finish sheet generates a similar question to the last two weekends, only it’s not a hulking Suisse we’re talking about; ‘who can beat the wiry, compact and very aggressive Philippe Gilbert (Lotto & Belgium)?’

Runner up last year was big Canadian Ryder Hesjedal; he looked good in the Pais Vasco, will be peaking for the Ardennes races and morale on the Garmin bus will be good after Johan Van Summeren saved their spring campaign for them.

Ryder Hesjedal and Enrico Gasparotto joined Philippe Gilbert on the podium last year.

In third place last time was Enrico Gasparotto, but the Italian has been quiet so far in 2011 and it would be a surprise to see him back on the podium.

But mention of his Astana team reminds us that ‘Vino’ is back for Kazakhstan and going well with a stage win in the Pais Vasco to prove it.

Vinokourov is a threat on pretty much any terrain, especially the Ardennes.

Previous winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre & Italy) was top ten last year and whilst a stage win in the Giro de Sardegna and victory in the Giro Dell’Appennino illustrate that the little man is back on form, there’s a dark cloud over the team in the form of a doping investigation, which won’t be helping morale.

Frank Schleck (Leopard & Luxembourg) was seventh last year and has no such worries; as a previous winner he knows his way round the twists and turns of Limburg and demonstrated his form by winning the recent Criterium International.

Andy and Frank Schleck will be a formidable duo for Leopard Trek.

But he’ll need better team support than Cancellara received in Flanders and Roubaix.

Vacansoleil’s Marco Marcato (Italy) was eighth in 2010 and will still be smarting from Landbou’s old Flemish warhorse Bert Scheirlinckx getting the better of him in the GP Pino Cerami; the Dutch team will be desperate for a big result on home roads.

If Johnny Hoogerland raced with his head a little less than his heart then it might be possible, but it’s unlikely he can beat Gilbert.

On the subject of potential home winners then Rabobank’s Robert Gesink’s name must be mentioned – with a strong team behind him a podium is possible.

Gesink was a podium finisher two years ago - he's a major contender now.

Oscar Freire apart it’s unusual to mention Spaniards as classic favourites but Katusha’s steep hill specialist Joaquin Rodriguez and Euskaltel’s Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez are two men who’ll enjoy the undulations and could make the podium.

The rapid finishers, Joaquin Rodriguez and Samuel Sanchez, are perfectly suited to Sunday's uphill 'sprint'.

But it’s hard to visualise anyone other than Gilbert storming over the top of the Cauberg in first spot on Sunday – although I did predict ‘no surprise winners’ at Roubaix . . .


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