This story was published in the May, 2001 edition of VeloNews magazine.
Of all the spring classics, the Amstel Gold Race ranks as the proverbial redheaded stepchild. And that’s not just because of the tens of thousands of rabid Dutch fans dressed head to toe in orange, their national color.
The 36-year-old Amstel Gold Race doesn’t boast the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix or the tradition that comes with the age of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Nor does it have the excitement of sunny season-opener Milano-Sanremo or the mystique of the dark, dank Tour of Flanders. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why UCI officials are switching race weekends between the Amstel Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, starting in 2003.
But don’t mention that to Erik Dekker — or to any Dutch racer for that matter. Dekker, the Rabobank rider who was vaulted into star status after taking three stage wins at the 2000 Tour de France, can now add a win at The Netherlands’ most cherished World Cup. As for the man he beat, Lance Armstrong, the final outcome here was all too familiar.
It’s Rabobank’s race
Since the Amstel’s inception some 35 years ago, the Dutch have now won 17 times and finished on the podium in all but 12 editions. Simply put, the Dutch consider the Amstel Gold Race their private event and they’re obsessed with being the masters of their domain.
‘This is the most important race of the year for us,” said Michael Boogerd, the captain of the powerful Rabobank team who scored a memorable victory against Armstrong in 1999. “We have to win in the Amstel Gold. It’s bigger to win here than win a stage at the Tour de France. When I was against Armstrong in 1999, I was dead. I had nothing. But I simply had to win. I don’t know what would have happened I didn’t win,” he said.
Such was the feeling coming into Amstel Gold 2001. Anything short of victory would be considered a loss for Rabobank, the country’s top team, which is sponsored by a large Dutch bank. The focus on Amstel is something Armstrong shares with the Dutch. It’s the only classics course the two-time defending Tour champion has regularly competed at since his 1998 comeback from cancer.
Before being diagnosed in 1996, a burly Armstrong specialized in these punishing one-day races. After a remarkable transformation that changed his physique, shedding nearly 20 pounds from his pre painful chemotherapy treatments, Armstrong had wings to chase much bigger prey, and he put the classics on the back burner. Except for the Amstel Gold Race.
This year, a fit and confident Armstrong rolled into chic Maastricht a tony Dutch town in the southern dimple of land squeezed into the hill country between Belgium and Germany with a U.S. Postal Service team looking to cap another successful spring with a big win. Still smarting from a photo-finish loss to Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd in 1999, Armstrong wanted to erase that memory.
“I’ve been close before, painfully close. That loss to Boogerd has always stuck in my mind. I’d like to try to win,” Armstrong said before the race. “It’s a beautiful race on a beautiful course. It’s the spring classics for me.”
Clearly, it was up to Rabobank to control the race. The deceptive 258km course profile is punctuated by 29 climbs over short, punchy hills (the highest is just 280 meters). But the hills are packed in back-to-back over tight, narrow farm roads; coupled with the brutal World Cup speeds, the Amstel took its fair share of victims.
Strong crosswinds and cold rain walloped the peloton from the start. Scores abandoned on the first of three loops when the course passed close to the warmth and comfort of team buses. Only 37 riders crossed the finish line; 153 abandoned and seven teams had no finishers at all.
“This was the hardest of all the World Cups I’ve raced in,” said Mercury-Viatel’s Chann McRae, who did not finish. “In this race, you have to be at the front because the roads are so narrow and the pace is so fast. If you lose contact with the lead group, it’s not worth killing yourself for it.”
Due to worries over foot-and-mouth disease, the course was altered to avoid infected areas. The course skipped its usual dip into Belgium and instead looped back over the steep climb at Cauberg for a third time. Official cars and even racers’ bikes were required to ride over a disinfectant mat at the start of the race. Many pooh-poohed the restrictions, but race officials insisted there was a real threat that the race might have been canceled had they ignored the problem.
Early in the race, 21 riders escaped off the front. With l00km to go and a 4:35 lead, the lead group splintered into a strong pack of I I riders that included George Hincapie and U.S. Postal Service teammate Jose Luis Rubiera and fellow American Fred Rodriguez of DomoFarm-Frites. Cagey veteran Andrei Tchmil had two Lotto-Adecco teammates to protect him in Jereon Blijlevens and Glenn D’Hollander.
Pre-race favorites Telekom and Rabobank didn’t have their star riders in the break and both teams worked hard to limit the damage. At the second of three passes at the Cauberg climb, the margin of the lead group was whittled to l:54 with 70km to go.
The Hincapie-Tchmil group was down to seven riders holding a 1:02 gap, as Rodriguez dropped back with 52km to go. With Hincapie in the lead group, Armstrong was riding defensively but ready to pounce if the break was reeled in.
Things fell apart and the break was caught with 47km to go at the final feed zone. Armstrong didn’t bide his time for very long. With 4lkm to go just before the Loorberg climb, Armstrong sprung off the front of the lead group of two dozen riders.
Tacconi Sport’s Eddy Mazzoleni followed Armstrong as he barreled away from the likes of Domo-Farm Frites’ Johan Museeuw, Mapei-Quick-Step’s Michele Bartoli and Mercury-Viatel’s Peter Van Petegem.
Another Rabobank nemesis, this time in the form of Dekker, put his head down and battled heavy winds to close a 35-second gap. That became 1:06 by the top of the 22-percent Keutenberg, where Mazzoleni fell back.
Against Dekker, Armstrong clearly wasn’t the stronger rider as he was in his loss to Boogerd in 1999, when the Dutch rider was so tired he couldn’t even take a pull. Armstrong tried to shake Dekker on the fabled Cauberg climb, a short, steep mother of a hill that riders hit for a third time in the closing l6km of the race, but Dekker stayed on his wheel.
“Maybe Lance didn’t know it, but I was completely dead at that point. I had just closed the gap of 35 seconds against a headwind,” Dekker said. “He tried to attack at Cauberg, but I stayed with him and it gave me some confidence that he wasn’t going to stop me.”
Dekker and Armstrong played a cat-and-mouse game in the finale, slowly approaching the final sprint with Dekker just in front of Armstrong. At the decisive moment, Dekker made the charge with just 250 meters to the tape. Armstrong was forced to move from Dekker’s left to right to try to get around him against blustery crosswinds, but Dekker had the momentum to carry across the line a bike length ahead of Armstrong.
“At a certain point in a situation like that you just have to go, because if you wait too long for the guy in the back to go, you lose,” Dekker said. “It’s nice to beat the Tour de France winner.”
For Dekker, it was a huge victory in front of the home crowd that catapulted him into the overall lead of the 10-round World Cup series. For Armstrong, it was another World Cup disappointment. The two-time defending Tour de France champ has finished second six times in World Cup races with one win coming at the Clasica San Sebastian in 1995.
Will Armstrong lose sleep over the loss? Don’t count on it. The Tour de France is the race that really matters. When reporters asked Armstrong why he doesn’t race in more classics, Armstrong replied: “If I win the Tour of Flanders or Liège, but lose the Tour de France, that’s it for the sponsors. Everyone in America cares about the Tour.”
By the party that erupted at the finish line, it’s obvious that everyone in the Netherlands cares about the Amstel Gold Race