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Euro Racing this Week: Contador’s back; Amstel on tap

The dust has settled – literally – on a hot and dry northern classics. With Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix now in the rear-view mirror, the brawny cobblestone specialists are heading toward a well-deserved break following what’s been some intense and unpredictable racing in the opening half of the spring classics calendar.

The Amstel Gold Race highlights a big week of springtime racing.
The Amstel Gold Race highlights a big week of springtime racing.

A different breed of riders moves to the forefront with this weekend’s Amstel Gold Race. While some familiar faces from the northern classics will be lining up Sunday in Maastricht in Holland’s hilly LImburg region, including defending champion Philippe GIlbert (Omega-Lotto) and Tour of Flanders winner Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-Sungard), the upcoming “Ardennes” classics will draw lighter, more nimble riders capable of punching up the endless string of climbs that mark the second half of the spring classics.

With all eyes on Amstel, there are other one-day races sprinkled across Europe, with four races in a busy week in France as well as the next round of the women’s World Cup in Holland in the cycling hotbed of Drenthe in northern Holland, where fans lined the entire route of the Vuelta a España when it passed through the area in 2009.

The stage-race highlight of the week is the five-day Castilla y León tour in northern Spain. Mild weather has helped turn the normally bleak northern meseta of Spain into a carpet of green as fields of wheat and barley are in full bloom in what should be another chance for Alberto Contador to win his fourth overall title at the race.

72nd Paris-Camembert (1.1)

April 12 – France

Sandy Casar (FDJ) won out of a five-man group on Tuesday to open a packed week of racing in northern France.

On the Web: www.paris-camembert.ifrance.com/

Brabantse Pijl (1.HC)

April 13 – Belgium

Three-time winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) is among the favorites for this semi-classic that transitions the classics month from the cobblestones to the hills.

On the Web: www.debrabantsepijl.be/nl

26th Vuelta a Castilla y León (2.1)

April 13-17 – Spain

Alberto Contador is the top draw in his first race since winning the Volta a Catalunya earlier this month. It’s also the first race for Contador since both the UCI and WADA have confirmed they will appeal the Spanish cycling federation’s decision to clear him of clenbuterol charges, so it will be interesting if Contador will make any public comments on the controversial doping case or simply let his legs do the talking. So far, Contador has won two overall titles and three individual stages since he was cleared in mid-February.

The five-day Castilla y León tour is tailor-made (again) for Contador’s characteristics. Three road stages favor the sprinters while the uphill summit finish in the mountains of Bierzo, where nearby Ponferrada will be hosting the 2014 world cycling championships, gives Contador a chance to win another stage and his fourth title. There’s a short, 11.2km ITT, so it’s his race to lose.

“It’s a challenging race, because the climb is not that demanding so there won’t be that many differences,” Contador said ahead of Wednesday’s start. “And the time trial is short, so any rider that shows up in form has a chance to win it. I will do the best I can, with the Giro in the back of my mind, which is only three weeks away.”

This year’s field is comparatively thin compared to the past few years, with only Sky, Movistar, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Rabobank joining Saxo Bank-Sungard as ProTeam squads. Igor Antón, who won a climbing stage ahead of Contador last year, will be the “Pistolero’s” most dangerous rival. Others with GC ambitions include Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun), who was third to Contador at the Vuelta a Murcia in March; Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), Xavier Tondo (Movistar) and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank).

On the Web: www.vueltacastillayleon.com/portal/inicio.php

52nd GP de Denain (1.1)

April 14 – France

On the Web: www.asso.nordnet.fr/gpdenain/Menu.htm

Ronde van Drenthe (WC)

April 16 – Holland

Women’s World Cup racing continues with the third round of the 2011 series in northern Holland on a technical course that always delivers an exciting race. Annemiek Van Vleuten (ARC) will carry the World Cup leader’s jersey onto home roads following his victory in the Tour of Flanders. Emma Pooley (CWT), winner of the World Cup opener, is second in the overall standings, with 86 points to Van Vleuten’s 110. Emma Johansson (HPU) is third overall with 80.

On the Web: www.rondevandrenthe.nl/worldcup

26th Tour du Finistère (1.1)

April 16 – France

On the Web: www.tourdufinistere.fr/

46th Amstel Gold Race (WT)

April 17 – Holland

Amstel is perhaps one of the most nervous races of the season. Narrow farm roads, strong crosswinds and an endless string of climbs — 31 in all — make for one of the most demanding days on the calendar. Add Holland’s notorious “traffic furniture,” unpredictable weather and huge packs of loud and rowdy Dutch fans, and the winner of Amstel Gold always deserves the just accolades.

Gilbert kicked to victory up the Cauberg last year in a huge win for him and his Omega Pharma-Lotto team in what was Gilbert’s coming-of-age season. Gilbert will give it a run if he has the legs on the day, but you can’t help but wonder if Gilbert will be saving his legs for Liège-Bastogne-Liège next Sunday, the race that he truly wants to win.

Ryder Hesjedal will lead Garmin-Cervélo after coming out of the Tour of the Basque Country with a strong overall performance. Second last year behind Gilbert, Hesjedal will get a boost from the team’s massive victory in Paris-Roubaix last weekend.

The Dutch will be gunning for victory in what they deem as “their” race. The last Dutch winner was way back in 2001, when Erik Dekker beat Lance Armstrong, so the pressure will be on for local riders. Karsten Kroon is a KO for BMC, so everyone will be looking at Rabobank’s Robert Gesink to carry the national colors. Gesink is hot off third overall at the Basque tour, so this could well be the year a Dutchman is back on the top.

That certainly would make the tens of thousands of fans who line the final kilometers through Valkenberg and up the short but steep climb to the finish line at Cauberg very happy.

(Check back later this week with full reports from VeloNews‘ Brian Holcombe, who will be following the action from Maastricht.)

On the Web: www.amstelgoldrace.nl

28th Tro-Bro León (1.1)

April 17 – France

On the Web: www.tro-bro-leon.com/

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