By John Wilcockson
After Tom Boonen rounded out the first half of the spring classics season by winning the GP Schelde near Antwerp on Wednesday, he said he was looking forward to some vacation time before building up toward a green-jersey bid at the Tour de France. While the current UCI ProTour leader (see standings below) puts up his feet by the pool at his home in Monte Carlo or in Spain’s Canary Islands, his co-leader at Quick Step-Innergetic, Paolo Bettini, will be coping with harsher weather (and the reality of racing) in the hills of the Netherlands and Belgium.
This Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, next Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the following Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège are the only classics that feature uphill finishes: respectively, the Cauberg at the Dutch town of Valkenburg, the Mur de Huy at the namesake town in Belgium’s Meuse Valley, and the Montée d’Ans just outside the city of Liège. These finishing climbs are only a kilometer or so in length but after 30 small hills at the 252km Amstel Gold, eight medium-sized climbs at the 202km Flèche and 12 mini-mountains at the 262km Liège, riders like Italy’s Bettini and his compatriot Davide Rebellin usually win through.
When Rebellin of Gerolsteiner did the unprecedented Amstel-Flèche-Liège hat-trick in 2004 (a year after the Dutch organizers moved the Amstel finish from a flat one in Maastricht to the uphill grind on the Cauberg), it became clear that the type of rider best suited to these classics is someone who can not only climb but also has the finishing punch to out-kick a small group at the end of a long, hilly race.
Today, there are two sets of riders who fall into this category: the classic specialists who target this eight-day swing through Limburg and the Ardennes as their major goal, and those men whose main priority is the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France.
The first group is headed by past winners of one or more of these classics: Bettini, Rebellin, Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Igor Astarloa (Barloworld) and Mario Aerts (Davitamon-Lotto); it also includes Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Filippo Pozzato (Quick Step), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Phonak), David Etxebarria (Liberty Seguros), Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Leonardo Bertagnolli (Cofidis), Jens Voigt and Franks Schleck (both CSC).
The grand-tour riders racing next week, some of whom will only race at Liège, include Ivan Basso (CSC), Alexander Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Épargne), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital), Cadel Evans (Davitamon), Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and José Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Both Vinokourov and Di Luca have won two of these three classics, but they are only riding them as this year as steps on the way to the Giro (for the Italian) and Tour (for the man from Kazakhstan).
The surprise name in this second group is Marchante, the 25-year-old Madrid racer who caused a minor sensation last week by winning the Tour of the Basque Country, the season’s third UCI ProTour stage race. In only his third season, Marchante will be riding the northern classics for the first time, but he could succeed. He has the same potential as fellow Spaniards Astarloa, who won the 2003 Flèche, and Mayo, who was second at Liège the same year.
Furthermore, the past three Amstel and Liège winners all raced at the Basque Country tour beforehand — with last year’s Basque winner Di Luca going on to take Amstel, Flèche … and the overall ProTour title. Besides Marchante, eight others showed ascendant form at the ruggedly hilly Basque race last week. Of these riders, Valverde, Sanchez and Freire all won stages and will be particularly dangerous at the Amstel Gold Race, while Sinkewitz, Perdiguero, Evans, Rebellin and Bertagnolli are more suited to the Flèche and Liège.
With so many riders (and teams) in contention for victory this coming week all of the races should be closely fought, with tight finishes. A few riders do have the potential for beating the odds, as Vinokourov and Voigt showed with their successful 40km break at last year’s Liège, but expect late-breaking moves — unless the weather turns nasty.
Cold, rain and even snow are not unknown at this time of year in these parts, particularly in the Belgian Ardennes. Such conditions test a rider’s resolve and accentuate the difficulties of a race, particularly races with as many climbs as those featured in these three classics. Bad weather is something welcomed by Bettini, who raced brilliantly last October in cold, torrential rain to score a fine solo win at the Championship of Zürich. But rain or shine, the Olympic champ looks sure to be one of the big names on the podium this coming week. And no doubt he’ll be cheered on by that Boonen guy, watching on his TV down south.
2006 UCI ProTour standings (before Amstel Gold Race)
1. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 129pts
2. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Fondital, 105
3. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC, 84
4. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Milram, 72
5. Antonio Colom (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears, 71
6. Filippo Pozzato (I), Quick Step-Innergetic, 70
7. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, 60
8. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 59
9. José Gomez Marchante (Sp), Saunier Duval-Prodir, 53
10. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak-iShares, 52
1. CSC (Dk), 95pts
2. Discovery Channel (USA), 93
3. Gerolsteiner (G), 93
4. Quick Step-Innergetic (B), 91
5. Rabobank (Nl), 85