Of all the major classics, the Amstel Gold Race is the most difficult to predict — and one of the hardest to win. Only three riders have won the Dutch classic more than once: Eddy Merckx (of course), who took it twice in the 1970s, and the Dutchmen Gerrie Knetemann (1974 and 1985) and Jan Raas, who had five wins in six starts between 1977 and 1982. But all those successes happened long before the Amstel became a truly international classic. (see list of previous Amstel Gold race winners)
Today, both the field and the course are much tougher than they were even a decade ago. This Sunday’s race features 31 climbs in its 257.3km and ends atop the last of them, the infamous Cauberg, where tens of thousands of Dutch bike-racing fans give the little town of Valkenburg the look of a world road championship every April.
You would think that those fans would give the edge to the home riders, but ever since the Amstel organizers decided to move its race finish to the Cauberg (pronounced “cow-berg”) in 2003, it has been won by a Kazakh, three different Italians, a Luxembourger, a German and a Russian. The last time a Dutch rider took his homeland classic was nine years ago, when the finish was on a flat street in Maastricht, where Erik Dekker managed to get the better of Lance Armstrong after they emerged from the hills together in a small breakaway group.
This Sunday, a new generation of Dutchman is toeing the start line in the medieval marketplace of Maastricht, hoping that their intimate knowledge of the roads in the province of Limburg will give them the edge over the favorites from overseas. That start list of heavyweights is topped by likely 2010 Tour de France contenders Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas, Carlos Sastre of Cervélo TestTeam, Brad Wiggins of Team Sky and Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne.
Assuming that everyone starts the race (Europe is still in chaos after the recent volcano eruption in Iceland stopped air travel), those Tour riders might get a chance of standing on the podium — grand tour winners Damiano Cunego, Danilo Di Luca and Alexander Vinokourov have all won the Amstel in the past decade. But the classics specialists like defending champion Serguei Ivanov of Katusha (and his teammates Joaquin Rodriguez and Alexandr Kolobnev) and 2006 winner Fränk Schleck of Saxo Bank look more likely to succeed on Sunday.
Only one Anglo-Saxon has won the Amstel in its 44-year history. That was Aussie legend Phil Anderson in 1983, while Armstrong remains the only American to have finished on the podium (in 1999 and 2001). Perhaps the lack of success since then will be broken this weekend. Australia’s world champ Evans has legitimate hopes of a top-three finish (but his compatriot Simon Gerrans of Sky has yet to find good form). And Irish road champion Nicolas Roche of AGR-La Mondiale, who continues to strengthen his finishing sprint, can’t be counted out.
As for the North Americans, Team RadioShack’s American Chris Horner and Garmin-Transitions’ Canadian Ryder Hesjedal are both on the best form of their lives. Horner’s brilliant victory in last week’s Tour of the Basque Country saw him easily match the best Spanish climbers before he knocked them out in the time trial. And Hesjedal, following his excellent fifth place at last month’s Strade Bianche-Eroica classic in Italy, rode strongly in Spain’s Basque Country and Catalonia stage races.
Interestingly, a Spanish rider has never won the Amstel Gold Race, which was first held in 1966.If that hex is to be broken, Rodriguez (winner of the recent Tour of Catalonia) perhaps has a better chance than his compatriots Valverde (beaten by Horner in last week’s Basque Country) and his Caisse d’Épargne teammate Luis León Sanchez.
But the main Iberian threat may come from Oscar Freire, who honed his form in the Basque Country after opening the classics season with his impressive third victory in Milan-San Remo. Freire has yet to master the “sprint” up the Cauberg, but he knows that in the event of a group finish, his Rabobank teammates will do everything to help him succeed.
Which brings us to the Dutch.
Last year, the orange-clad fans in Valkenburg believed their cheers were finally having a positive effect when local man Karsten Kroon and Rabobank’s climber Robert Gesink made it into the winning break with Ivanov — but it was the burly Russian who thwarted the two Dutchman with a powerful surge in the last (flatter) stretch of the 1.2km climb. Kroon is now on BMC Racing and will share the team lead with Evans, while Gesink is Rabobank’s co-leader with Freire, Lars Boom and Sebastian Langeveld.
But not all Dutch hopes lie in the Rabo camp. Garmin has the on-form rookie Michel Kreder, who placed third two weeks ago in the GP Miguel Induráin behind Rodriguez and Valverde in an uphill finish similar to the Cauberg. And the Vacansoleil team’s Johnny Hoogerland is a true dark horse after his fine 11th place at the recent Tour of Flanders, and his astounding fifth place last fall in the Tour of Lombardy.
But the man that everyone is concerned about is that Lombardia winner Philippe Gilbert of Omega-Lotto. The Belgian was on great form on the hilly finishing circuit at last Wednesday’s Flèche Brabançonne, and the punch he packs in uphill sprints (remember his stage win in last year’s Giro d’Italia?) makes him our top favorite. Then again, in a race that is so hard to predict, any one of the two dozen starters we’ve mentioned here could end up with the victory Sunday afternoon.
VeloNews.com will provide live coverage of this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne and next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. You can reach the live coverage at velonews.com/live. On mobile, go to mobile.velonews.com and follow the link at the top of the page to the live player.