By Andrew Hood
Try as he might, Lance Armstrong just can’t win Amstel Gold.
Second here in 1999 and 2001, Armstrong finished fourth behind born-again Italian Michele Bartoli in an exciting, attack-riddled race Sunday in the Limburg region of Holland.
It’s not as if he isn’t trying. Once again, Armstrong was among the main protagonists in the 37th edition of this unofficial finale of the spring classics. Armstrong, along with longtime nemesis Michael Boogerd of Rabobank, made the decisive attack on the Eyserbosweg climb 40 kilometers from the finish in the 254km circuit race.
Bartoli and Serguei Ivanov — both of Fassa Bortolo — chugged out to join them and the four fought an exciting duel over the plunging, narrow roads of this hilly dimple of Holland squeezed between Germany and Belgium.
Ivanov and Bartoli played it to their advantage. Ivanov attacked hard in the final six climbs over the 33-climb race, forcing a motivated Armstrong to reel him in each time. All the while, Bartoli bided his time for a four-up sprint finish.
“It was a real good group. They were all so strong. The sprint was tricky,” said Armstrong, who showed no signs of the stomach problems that hit him Friday. “Maybe I started in the back and I started too late. Many times here I started the sprint too early. I didn’t want to start early.”
After playing cat and mouse over the final kilometer, Ivanov shot ahead with 300 yards to go while Boogerd and Armstrong could only watch a resurgent Bartoli roar past his teammate to win his first World Cup since 1998. Ivanov took second and Boogerd third while world champion Oscar Freire (Mapei) finished fifth to take the bunch sprint at 52 seconds back.
“With 20 kms to go, it was decided that Ivanov would attack and I would go for the sprint,” said Bartoli, 31. “This is an important victory for me. After so many problems and disappointment, it is great to win again.”
Bartoli’s victory capped an amazing spring for the Italians, who won four out of the five opening rounds of the 2002 World Cup. Belgian Johan Museeuw – winner at Paris-Roubaix – retained the overall lead as the World Cup steps aside until August for the start of the stage-race season.
Armstrong’s fourth-place caps his equally impressive spring campaign for the 30-year-old Texan. Armstrong changed the blueprint on his tried-and-true Tour de France preparation and raced in every spring classic except Paris-Roubaix for the first time since his return from cancer.
Second at the Criterium International at the end of March, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates had hoped for victory this spring – with either Armstrong here or George Hincapie at the Belgian Classics. Tom Boonen gave the Posties a surprising podium at Roubaix.
Amstel Gold has been Armstrong’s classic and he’s raced here every year since 1999 when his narrow loss to Boogerd announced his return to cycling’s elite. Last year, Armstrong lost to national hero Erik Dekker of Rabobank, who used his victory here as a springboard to the overall World Cup title.
Armstrong tried to attack on the day’s final climb at St. Antoniusbank with 8kms to go. But the short, steep St. Antoniusbank is no Alpe d’Huez and Armstrong ran out of room before the group brought him back.
“This is a great race,” Armstrong said. “It’s nice to be in the front group. Every year I’ll be back.”
Showered and refreshed after the race, Armstrong drove away with his family to fly home to Spain. The Tour de France is what really matters.
(Live updates below)
Bartoli wins four-up sprint, beating Ivanov, Boogerd and Armstrong to take the win.
Armstrong attacks at St. Anthoniusbank, dropping the others, momentarily slipping away. But these short climbs aren’t the same as the long steeps in the Tour. There isn’t enough room for Armstrong to get away. Boogerd and Bartoli check his move and the four are together with 8km to go. Armstrong attacks again. Ivanov follows and reels him in. Count-attacks by Bartoli. Punishing speeds.
The Armstrong group hits the Geulhemmerberg climb – the penultimate of the race – about 1:25 ahead of the lead group of about 30 chasers. With 15 km to go, Armstrong is looking strong, but can he shake the curse of Amstel Gold? It’s not for a lack of trying. Armstrong is out of the saddle, pounding the pedals. He momentarily splits the group and Ivanov and Boogerd fall back before coming back. Midway up the Geulhemmerberg climb, Ivanov and then Bartoli shoot ahead and Boogerd and Armstrong have to work hard to bring them back.
The Armstrong group roars through the throngs at Valkenburg, site of the 1998 world championships. The streets are lined with thousands of cheering fans. The sun is shining and fans are three-deep on the ascent up the Cauberg. Armstrong eases to the front, with Bartoli and Boogerd on his wheel. The four clear the top together, with Mapei and Telekom driving hard in their wake.
The Cauberg climb awaits — 19km from the finish, the third time the riders have hit the climb in the race. The leading four are working together across the long flat between the Keutenberg and the Cauberg. Telekom and Tacconi Sport work the lead of the front group behind Armstrong with world champion Freire working hard.
At the foot of the Keutenberg climb, the Armstrong-Boogerd group bring back De Groot and Schmitz, perhaps giving Boogerd a teammate coming into the finale. It’s all pistons flying as the lead group is strung out with riders fighting desperately to hang on. 30 kms to go. De Groot drops back at the foot of the climb. Boogerd leads the climb, Armstrong on his wheel. Ivanov and Bartoli on Armstrong’s wheel. Schmitz drops off. The four clear the 22-percent climb with more than a minute gap on the top pursuers.
He’s baaack. Lance Armstrong makes his move and now there’s a race. Armstrong slings off the front of the lead bunch with Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Michele Bartoli and Serguie Ivanov (Fassa Bortolo) and slip 24 seconds off the lead group. Boogerd narrowly nipped Armstrong at the line in 1999 by inches, but the strong result by Armstrong gave notice to the world that Armstrong was back after cancer nearly killed him in 1996.
The lead bunch is down to about 40 riders coming up the Eyserbosweg climb. World Cup leader Johan Museeuw is hanging off the back, with U.S. champion Fred Rodriguez hangs back to help out.
Christian Vande Velde and Jose Luis Rubiera set a blistering pace up the Gulperberg climb where there is a car on the road, nearly causing a crash. George Hincapie moves up as Armstrong is surrounded by blue jerseys. The lead is down to 2:15 with 44km to go.
More drive from Postal, the gap is down to 2:56 as the peloton hits the Loorberg climb.
Petacchi has given up his chase and dropped back to the main bunch. Dierckxsens, Van Velzen and Kristensen are still chasing. De Groot, Van Dijk, Kupfernagel and Schmitz are still off the front. Postal is driving a brutal pace, narrowing the gap on the leaders to 3:45.
195 kms: 3:48 p.m.
Mapei and U.S. Postal Service are leading the chase group. Mapei comes loaded with talent, with Paolo Bettini fresh off his win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and reigning world champion Oscar Freire anxious for a strong result. U.S. Postal Service is looking to deliver Armstrong a victory here in a race where the three-time defending Tour de France champion has finished second in 1999 and 2001. The quartet’s lead is down to 5:15 as the sun pops out. Dierckxsens and Van Velzen catch Petacchi and Kristensen, still 2:30 behind the leading four riders.
185 km: 3:20 p.m.
Ouch! Peter Wuyts, the Belgian rider on Collstrop-Palmans who worked so hard alone, crashed hard on a wet corner and flew into a traffic sign. The roads at Amstel Gold are notoriously narrow and Wuyts found out how bad. Petacchi and Kristensen carried on, working 3:51 behind the four leaders at 180km.
Meanwhile, the peloton remains quiet with the main protagonists playing the patient hand at 6 minutes back. Lance Armstrong was riding at the front of the lead group, with Jose Luis Rubiera on his flank. Ludo Dierckxsens (Lampre) and Jan Van Velzen (Bankgiroloterij) pull off the front of the peloton. De Groot, Van Dijk, Kupfernagel and Schmitz are still working in the lead.
170kmFassa Bortolo’s Alessandro Petacchi attacks off the front of the peloton on the first of two climbs at the Geuhemmerweg. Former Tour VTT winner Lennie Kristensen (Fatka) follows. They catch Wuyts and the trio work 5:23 behind the four leaders.
Earlier in the day, Farm Frites Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel won the “2nd International Amstel Gold Race for Ladies.” Teammate Mirjam Melchers crossed the line second. Organizers are hoping to earn World Cup status for the race in the coming years.
157kmThe four leaders are 4:25 ahead of Wuyts, who carries on alone as Rund and Vestol fade. The peloton is 7 minutes back. The rain has stopped and the wind has died down with 85 kms left in the race.
START: 10:15 a.m.
The race started at 10:15 and U.S. Postal’s Matthew White suffered the day’s first flat at 12km and Martin Rittsel (CSC-Tiscali) was the first to abandon.
Early in the race, when the peloton hit the first of 33 climbs at 14km, a dozen riders tried to escape. Six riders eventually made the split: Rabobank’s Bram De Groot, Lotto’s Steffan Van Dijk, Coast’s Thorsten Rund, Phonak’s Stefan Kupfernagel, Bankgiroloterij’s Bram Schmitz and Fatka’s Bjarnar Vestol.
By the 50km mark, on the first passage of the Cauberg at 50 kms, the gap had widened to 2:40.
With rain and wind pelting the peloton, Peter Wuyts (Palmans) set off on a solo chase of the breakaway 10km later. By the 70km mark, the six-man break was 3:00 ahead of the peloton with Wuyts chasing.
By 135 kms, the lead group split as Rund and Vestol fell off the pace, leaving de Groot, Van Dijk, Kupfernagel and Schmitz working in the lead, 7:35 ahead of the main peloton.
The drain of the weather and the speed is taking it out of the main bunch, which splits into three group. Wuyts is still working in a solitary chase at 2:45 back.
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1. Michele Bartoli (I), Fassa Bortolo, 6:49:17; 2. Sergei Ivanov (Rus) Fassa Bortolo; 3. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank; 4. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, all s.t.,; 5. Oscar Freire (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step, at 0:52; 6. Peter Van Petegem (B), Lotto-Adecco; 7. Jo Planckaert (B); 8. Paolo Bettini (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 9. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom; 10. Nico Mattan (B), Cofidis, all s.t.