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Preview: Valverde, Gerrans square off again at Amstel Gold Race

Short, sharp climbs, heavy crosswinds, narrow roads, innumerable traffic islands and a brutal battle for position make the Amstel Gold Race one of the most under-rated and nervous days of the spring classics. Without an overwhelming favorite, Sunday’s 47th edition will be all the more stressful — just the situation the gritty opportunists need to turn the tables on the power climbers in the opener of the Ardennes classics.

Sandwiched between cycling monuments Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, two of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious races, the upstart Amstel Gold Race is the youngest of the classics and probably the most nerve-wracking. Westerly winds buffet the low-slung hills of the Netherlands’ Limburg region, which plays host to the Dutch classic on Sunday. With rain in the forecast and temperatures around 50F, this weekend’s 256km Amstel Gold Race could be a very sloppy affair.

The Tour of Flanders and Roubaix lie behind the peloton, and the big, brawny cobbles-bashers step aside for a new style of rider to take over as AGR opens “Ardennes week.”

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This week in the hills of eastern Holland and Belgium offers the climbers three chances for classics glory. But the GC riders capable of winning a grand tour will have their best shot later in the week, as La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are better suited for the likes of Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck.

Amstel Gold Race winners are typically riders who are nimble enough to climb, but still pack a punch at the end of seven hours of racing. Puncheurs such as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Gilbert are all ideal for this terrain.

All three will line up as legitimate favorites for victory, though Gilbert has admitted he’s not even close to the same level as he was last year when he swept through Ardennes week, making him only the second rider to ever win Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same year. (The first rider was Davide Rebellin, who later served a doping suspension tied to the 2008 Olympic Games.)

“You have to be realistic… I’m not the favorite,” Gilbert said following Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl warm-up race, east of Brussels. “My main ambition is to re-find my shape, the shape I had last year. Either it will come or it won’t… Let’s put it this way: right now it’s not pleasant. Also because it is difficult to find a way out, to analyze why I’m lacking shape.”

While Gilbert arrives after a week of training in Monaco that followed his run at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and Flanders, Gerrans, Rodriguez, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), came through the typical lead-up to the hilly classics by riding the Vuelta al País Vasco in Spain earlier this month.

Sánchez looks to be back in the same form that delivered him the Olympic gold medal four years ago and enters the week with high ambitions. He won the queen stage at the Basque Country tour for the third year-in-a-row and finally captured the overall there, which had eluded him in his team’s biggest one-week race.

“Now I am at peace with myself and with the fans,” said Sánchez. “Finally at 34, which I just celebrated, I won the race that most resisted me. I had been third, I had won stages, I was the leader… finally, my turn.”

Sánchez will carry the freedom that the long-sought-after win gives him into Maastricht and is one of the favorites most capable of riding away on the Keutenberg or Eyserbosweg.

Gerrans will also ride with a free hand on Sunday, a month after opening the classics season with the surprise win at Milan-San Remo. The Aussie is best suited to the Ardennes races and with the confidence of an unforeseen victory and the backing of his GreenEdge squad, Gerrans will no doubt be a firecracker as the race arrives on the final circuit.

“They’re pretty honest races. If you got good legs in the final, you will be up in the front,” said Gerrans. “Amstel finishes atop the Cauberg; that’s a pretty truthful finish. The best guy in the front group always wins. This year there is not one big favorite, so the racing might be a bit more open.”

The other top favorite is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), looking to make up for lost time during his two-year doping ban from Operación Puerto.

Valverde has been on great form so far, winning in his first race back with a stage at the Tour Down Under in January, followed by stages and the overall at the Ruta del Sol and a stage at Paris-Nice and the podium. Two of those wins came head-to-head with Gerrans on hilltop sprints similar to the Cauberg.

A crash knocked Valverde out of the Volta a Catalunya, but so far he’s won in each month since his return and hopes to keep that streak going with a strong ride in the Ardennes. The Spaniard has trained his eyes on returning to the top step of the podium at Liège since rejoining the peloton in January, and the finale on the Cauberg is the perfect prelude, if he arrives to Valkenburg at the front of the race.

Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was impressive with his victory Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl, but Amstel is a notch or two harder that that transition race between the cobbles and the Ardennes. Voeckler, however, is never one to shy away from a punching match and Gilbert opened his historic run last year with a win in the midweek semi-classic. Voeckler has never finished inside the top-25 on the Cauberg, and given his win on Wednesday — and his reputation as a gritty breakaway rider — the other favorites are not likely to let the Frenchman out of their sights anywhere inside the final two circuits.

Two riders on the “watch list” are Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan). Both are expected to start despite crashing in separate incidents at Brabantse Pijl. Schleck injured his hand, but expected to recover in time for Sunday. Sagan slammed hard on his right side and is more doubtful.

That’s unfortunate, because if one rider seemed destined to win Amstel Gold Race, it would be Sagan. The Slovak sensation has been on a tear this spring and is poised for a big win. There’s no question he can sprint at the end of a hard effort — he won the chase group sprint at Milan-San Remo and was second in the field sprint at the Tour of Flanders — but his crash Wednesday might have taken the wind out of his sails.

The Dutch are always under the gun to try to win on home roads, though the last national winner was more than a decade ago with Erik Dekker in 2001. Mollema will lead a Rabobank squad that is bringing it’s A-team, with Lars Boom, Matti Breschel, Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk and Bram Tamkink all lining up, but the orange-clad home team will most likely find difficulty in creating a scenario in which it can win its biggest one-day race of the year.

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