Events

Schumacher scores big at Amstel Gold Race

It would take a true trivia buff to remember the last time a rider won a spring classic with a dozen stitches in his knee, but 26-year-old German Stefan Schumacher of Gerolsteiner did just that at the 42nd Amstel Gold Race on Sunday in the Netherlands. Schumacher, who crashed during the final stage of the Tour of the Basque Country on April 14, came into the Ardennes Classics quite unsure of his fitness, after taking four days completely off the bike in the week before Amstel Gold. He rode on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading into the race, and decided to give it a go.

By Neal Rogers

With three riders in the final seven, Amstel was Gerolsteiner's to lose

With three riders in the final seven, Amstel was Gerolsteiner’s to lose

Photo: Agence France Presse

It would take a true trivia buff to remember the last time a rider won a spring classic with a dozen stitches in his knee, but 26-year-old German Stefan Schumacher of Gerolsteiner did just that at the 42nd Amstel Gold Race on Sunday in the Netherlands.

Schumacher, who crashed during the final stage of the Tour of the Basque Country on April 14, came into the Ardennes Classics quite unsure of his fitness, after taking four days completely off the bike in the week before Amstel Gold. He rode on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading into the race, and decided to give it a go.

“I had great form at the Basque Country, I felt better and better every day,” said Schumacher, who won both the Tour of Poland and the Tour of Benelux last year but started Amstel Gold with bandages on his left elbow and knee. “But after I crashed I had to have my knee stitched up, and the next day it was swollen — twice as big. After taking four days off I didn’t know what my form would be like. I thought maybe it would be 90 or 95 percent. I think it was 100 percent.”

With 20km remaining in Sunday’s race, Schumacher attacked on the Eyserbosweg, the 28th of 31 climbs on the demanding Amstel course. The attack drew out the race’s top favorites, including world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic), Astana’s Matthias Kessler, Rabobank’s 1999 Amstel winner Michael Boogerd and Schumacher’s teammate, 2004 Amstel winner Davide Rebellin.

Gerolsteiner serves up a 1-2 punch

Gerolsteiner serves up a 1-2 punch

Photo: Graham Watson

Though the day had been filled with attacks and counterattacks, it became quickly apparent that this move had the legs to stay away. Sensing the danger up the road, 2005 Amstel winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) bridged across, bringing with him heavy race favorite Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and a third Gerolsteiner rider, Fabian Wegmann.

With 15km remaining Wegmann attacked hard on the steep slopes of the Fromberg, forcing the others in the group to respond. Wegmann’s move gave Schumacher and Rebellin a free ride, and a chance to size up the rest of the bunch. Looking to set up Rebellin for the sprint, Schumacher then attacked on the final climb, the Cauberg, with one kilometer to go.

The pace stayed high all day.

The pace stayed high all day.

Photo: Graham Watson

A hesitation in the group gave Schumacher’s move hope, although his chance for victory was nearly derailed – literally – as he tried to shift from the big ring to the little ring with 700 meters to go on the 12-percent pitches of the 750-meter long Cauberg. But the bald-headed German simply shifted back into the big ring and pedaled to victory, crossing the line 21 seconds ahead of Rebellin, with Di Luca taking third. It was an ideal result for Gerolsteiner, giving the German squad a one-two finish and Schumacher the biggest win of his career.

“The Ardennes Classics are the perfect races for me,” Schumacher said. “I’ve been improving each season, and these are the types of races I think suit me best.”

A nervous time
At the start in Maastricht, reporters and fans mobbed Boogerd, who earlier in the week informed the cycling world that he would be riding in his final Amstel Gold Race before retiring at the end of the 2007 season. Amstel is an event that has helped define Boogerd’s career — he won in 1999, beating a pre-Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, and has since reached the podium seven times.

Asked how he liked the attention surrounding his presence in the race that has featured so prominently in his career, Boogerd told VeloNews, “I like it, but I always like it every year, so for me it stays the same race. It’s a great race, that’s the most important thing. It’s the same pressure as always. I just want to have a good race with the team, then we’ll see what happens.”

Wearing race number one, last year’s breakthrough winner Frank Schleck (CSC) was calm, cool and collected at the start. Realizing that he would likely not be given much of a leash at this year’s event, Schleck said he, too, would take a wait-and-see attitude.

“It’s always hard to win the race for a second time, but I hope it’s going work out… maybe not for me, but maybe for the team,” Schleck said, hearkening back to last week’s Paris-Roubaix win by his teammate Stuart O’Grady, one year after CSC’s Fabian Cancellara had also won the Hell of the North.

Any pre-race nerves at the start were calmed when the lead commissaire vehicle, carrying race director Leo Van Vliet, stalled in front of the peloton after the start gun was fired, delaying the start for several minutes in front of a crowd of several thousands at a ProTour race.

Unlike the past two years, which were marked with fog and rain, temperatures approached the 70s at the start. A steady wind out of the south greeted the pack of 180 riders (23 eight-man teams, with three riders not starting) as it headed out of Maastricht and into the green rolling hills of Dutch Limburg, in the southeastern region of the Netherlands, toward the finish in nearby Valkenberg.

A 252km route of three differing but concentric circuits of narrow, serpentine roads, roundabouts and other obstacles in the road, Amstel’s route features no straightaway of more than 1km — meaning the effect of the wind is always difficult to measure. What was certain was that the peloton was set to face Amstel’s 31 bergs — a series of steep, punchy climbs that culminate with a finish atop the 12-percent pitches of the 750-meter Cauberg.

However strong the winds, they didn’t keep five riders – Nic Ingels (Predictor-Lotto), Olivier Bonnaire (Bouygues-Telecom), Tom Stubbe (Chocolade-Jacques), Daniel Musiol (Wisenhof-Felt) and Piet Rooyakkers (Skil-Shimano) – from slipping away just four kilometers into the race.

The first time through the start-finish area, the five had a gap of 7:15 atop the Cauberg, with 65km completed and 186 to go. But the escapees were maintaining a brisk pace – two hours at 43.5kph – on hilly roads, and the effort began to take its toll. Unable to hold the pace, Ingels dropped back, and by the end of the second loop the gap from the four leaders hovered just below four minutes.

Coming up the Cauberg a second time, big names like Bettini and 2000 Amstel winner Erik Zabel (Milram) were close to the front, while T-Mobile’s Michael Rogers was off the back of the pack receiving attention to his bike, with teammate Michael Barry waiting nearby, prepared to drag him back through the caravan. The high pace – quicker than the fastest predictions in the race manual — kept the peloton lined up in single-file.

“I have never competed in such a nervous race,” said Italian Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval-Prodir).

Voigt and company posed a serious threat

Voigt and company posed a serious threat

Photo: Graham Watson

As the gap to the leading four riders began to come down to 1:30, four riders attacked out of the main field. Leading the group was breakaway specialist Jens Voigt (CSC), joined by Daniele Righi (Lampre), Piet Rooyakkers (Skil-Shimano) and recent Paris-Roubaix podium finisher Steffen Wesemann (Wisenhof-Felt). The Voigt group quickly caught and passed the day’s original breakaways, while behind, teams not represented, such as Caisse d’Epargne, Gerolsteiner and T-Mobile took up the chase.

Clash of the Titans
A true classic, the Amstel Gold Race is a race of attrition where the strongest riders emerge at the front of the race. And while Gerolsteiner was the strongest team on the day, if the 2007 Amstel Gold Race had a hero it had to be CSC’s Schleck. The defending champion crashed hard with 50km remaining and initially looked to be out of the race after television cameras showed him curled up in the fetal position at the side of the road.

Boogered and Sinkewitz dug deep on the Schweiberg

Boogered and Sinkewitz dug deep on the Schweiberg

Photo: Graham Watson

But moments later Schleck was chasing his way back through the caravan, taking help from his CSC team car in the form of a few quite-blatant “bike checks” and a couple of turbo-charged water bottle exchanges. But with Voigt driving the breakaway, the timing couldn’t have been worse for the team of the defending winner. But Schleck valiantly fought his way back to the tail of the peloton.

With 35km to go, the pace ramped up to 70kph as a series of riders attacked and counterattacked in hopes of shedding some unwelcome company. Sanuier Duval’s Manuele Mori attacked on the Schweiberg with 34km left in the race, and the move drew out T-Mobile’s Patrik Sinkewitz. Next came Quick Step’s Carlo Barredo, hoping to set up Bettini. Cagey riders behind him left Barredo hanging off the front, but just before he was finally reeled back, he launched another blistering charge and bridged up to the four escapees. Barredo and the other four were caught with 22km to go and the peloton – at least what was left of it – was back together.

Gerolsteiner waters down the Amstel
It was on the climb of the Eyserbosweg with barely less than 21km to go that Schumacher attacked. Though CSC’s Karsten Kroon was at the front of the field, it was Bettini who was first to react. The move brought Kessler, Rebellin and Boogerd. Suddenly in the lead group were two past Amstel winners and the current world champion — advantage Gerolsteiner. Missing were riders such as Kroon, Valverde, Di Luca and Sinkewitz.

Wesemann and Voigt about to be caught

Wesemann and Voigt about to be caught

Photo:

With 16km to go, Di Luca attacked out of the peloton on the Fromberg, bringing Valverde and Wegmann with him. Out of the seven-man lead group — Bettini, Kessler, Schumacher, Rebellin, Di Luca, Boogerd and Wegmann — three wore the light blue of the German Gerolsteiner squad.

“That was our goal with three leaders here,” said Wegmann. “You could see we were all in good shape, and at Eyserbosweg that was the point to go. It has been the last few years, and we knew that. Schumy attacked and it worked. I came across with Di Luca, and then came the order to attack right away to keep the speed up high. The others were forced to go with me, and in the finish it was our advantage because we had two riders. I knew that if Schumy would attack, he would be strong.”

On the steep slopes of the Keutenberg, the penultimate climb, Di Luca dug deep, hoping against hope to rid the group of at least one of the Gerolstiners. Valverde appeared to be in trouble while both Bettini and Boogerd continued to pedal smoothly. The chase group, containing riders like Voigt and was nearly one minute behind with 6km to go. It was too late; the leaders would decide the race.

With only the Cauberg remaining, there was only one question left to be answered: Which Gerolsteiner rider would attack, and when?

Though the rising tension reached a fervor pitch, the leaders worked well together on the flat roads and descent into the finishing town of Valkenberg. With Bettini, Valverde and Rebellin the best sprinters in the bunch, Gerolsteiner decided to send Schumacher on the attack, looking to save Rebellin’s legs. What the team couldn’t have expected was the hesitation in the group when Schumacher attacked; the pause before Kessler eventually took up the chase gave Schumacher a 10-second gap with 700 steep, uphill meters to go.

With Rebellin sitting on, the rest of the leaders resigned themselves to second place; by the time Schumacher crossed the line his gap had stretched to 21 seconds over Rebellin, who took the bunch sprint for second place.

“It’s incredible,” said Schumacher. “With Rebellin we were two riders from the same team in the leading group so it was only natural that I attacked. The plan was that I would attack first, and we would save Rebellin for the sprint. It was an ideal situation. I picked the right moment to make the break.”

Rebellin was hoping for a win...

Rebellin was hoping for a win…

Photo: Graham Watson

With the second-place finish Rebellin took the lead in the UCI ProTour, with his total of 92 points 10 higher than that of Oscar Freire (Rabobank). Though he looked disappointed to have not taken the win, Rebellin said sending his teammate up the road was the next best thing to winning.

“I am in very good form,” Rebellin said. “I came to the Ardennes to win one of the three classics. With my current condition, I hope to be able to win Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. From the moment there were three of us [with Schumacher and Wegmann] in the front group, the weight of the race rested on us. Wegmann sacrificed himself first and Schumacher left at the perfect time. He is an intelligent bike racer. He’s very fast and very smart.”

Valverde, the heavy favorite after winning both Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége last year, finished sixth.

“In the first part of the race, my teammates did a great job to control the breakaway,” Valverde said. “Later, in the final, when the break with the favorites went, I was too far behind and I had to spend a lot of energy to come in front. That was surely the key of my race, but at the same time I have to admit that Gerolsteiner was really strong today, with three riders in front of the race. After Schumacher attacked, I was the only one to work to try to catch him. After that, when Kessler attacked, I understood that I had not even a chance to finish on the podium, but anyway I am satisfied before Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Today I saw that my rivals are very strong, but not superiors.” As for Schumacher, the big question was what is next for the German, as he appears to continue to improve each year. Beyond this week’s Fléche Wallone and Liége-Bastogne-Liége double, Schumacher said he plans to ride his first Tour de France in July. After that, he said his biggest motivation lies in September, at this year’s world championships, in Stuttgart.

“An opportunity to race the world championships in your home country only comes once in a career,” Schumacher said. “And I think the course is perfect for me. I am more motivated for this race than any other race this year.”(See Schumacher’s March 25th interview with VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood)

Top 20
1. Stefan Schumacher (G), Gerolsteiner, 6hr 11min 49sec
2. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, at 21sec
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, 22
4. Matthias Kessler (G), Astana, at 0:23
5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:24
6. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:27
7. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, at 0:27
8. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, at 1:07
9. Riccardo Ricco (I), Saunier Duval, 1:07
10. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, 1:07
11. Joaquin Rodriguez (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, 1:07
12. Thomas Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 1:07
13. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, 1:07
14. Kim Kirchen (Lux), T-Mobile, 1:12
15. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 1:14
16. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Ag2r, 1:14
17. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Credit Agricole, 1:14
18. Johan Van Summeren (B), Predictor-Lotto, 1:14
19. Mario Aerts (B), Predictor-Lotto, 1:14
20. Francesco Bellotti (I), Credit Agricole, 1:14

Photo Gallery

Results

1. Stefan Schumacher (G), Gerolsteiner, 6hr 11min 49sec
2. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, at 21sec
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, 22
4. Matthias Kessler (G), Astana, at 0:23
5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:24
6. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:27
7. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, at 0:27
8. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, at 1:07
9. Riccardo Ricco (I), Saunier Duval, 1:07
10. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, 1:07
11. Joaquin Rodriguez (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, 1:07
12. Thomas Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 1:07
13. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, 1:07
14. Kim Kirchen (Lux), T-Mobile, 1:12
15. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 1:14
16. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Ag2r, 1:14
17. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Credit Agricole, 1:14
18. Johan Van Summeren (B), Predictor-Lotto, 1:14
19. Mario Aerts (B), Predictor-Lotto, 1:14
20. Francesco Bellotti (I), Credit Agricole, 1:14