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Amstel Gold Race preview

The list of favorites for Sunday's Amstel Gold Race seems nearly as long as the number of years the race has been held: 43. For the first time in more than a decade, neither one of Holland’s eternal favorites for Amstel Gold — Erik Dekker or Michael Boogerd — can be counted on to carry national pride. Each won Amstel once, beating Lance Armstrong each time in what was one of the biggest wins in each of their respective careers.

Full keg of faves for Holland’s beer classic

By Andrew Hood

The list of favorites for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race seems nearly as long as the number of years the race has been held: 43.

For the first time in more than a decade, neither one of Holland’s eternal favorites for Amstel Gold — Erik Dekker or Michael Boogerd — can be counted on to carry national pride. Each won Amstel once, beating Lance Armstrong each time in what was one of the biggest wins in each of their respective careers.

Dekker, winner in 2001, is now driving Rabobank’s team car as a sport director two years already while Boogerd, winner in 1999, retired last year after one last shot at glory in Holland’s biggest race.

The favorites — there are many

Rabobank instead will be counting on the Spanish duo of José Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire as well as the younger but fast-improving legs of Thomas Dekker and Robert Gesink. The Dutch pair have generated plenty of buzz among Dutch fans, but whether either one of these two rising prospects can deliver the big win against more experienced foes remains unlikely.

It could be another Dutch rider, Karsten Kroon of Team CSC, who could step up to lead national hopes up the Cauberg, the race’s critical final climb.

Joining Kroon on the powerful CSC squad is 2006 winner Frank Schleck, who, despite crashes at Paris-Nice and Basque Country (aka: Vuelta al Pais Vasco), is more motivated than ever to shine again in the Ardennes.

The elder of the Schleck brothers suffered a horrendous crash in last year’s Amstel, but he still managed to finish 10th and then climbed to third at Liège a week later.

“I’ve been anticipating these three races. I’ve trained hard and feel good after the Basque Country so I’m quite happy with my form and now I’m just hoping for OK weather,” Schleck said on the team’s Web page. “Luckily we have a really strong team with several possible contenders for the victory so it’s not all about me. The entire team is in great shape and we have at least three or four wild cards who could also end up on the podium. But the competition’s tough. A lot of the specialists from the other teams are also in brilliant shape right now.”

Although Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) is KO’d with broken ribs and is hoping to be back for Liège next weekend, there are still plenty of contenders to fill in for the Cricket’s absence.

Five-star favorites include last year’s runner-up Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), both of whom thrive in the short punchy climbs of the Limburg.

Rebellin’s entire season is wrapped up into peaking just in time for the Ardennes.

The quiet Italian best remembered for his historic sweep, claiming Amstel-Flèche-Liège in succession in his remarkable 2004 season. Fresh off winning Paris-Nice, the evergreen Italian classics star is still a threat to contend with.

Teammate and defending champ Stefan Schumacher is perhaps a kick or two off his winning form from a year ago, but Gerolsteiner can be counted on to control the pace.

Valverde, meanwhile, keeps making noises that his main goals are the Tour de France and Summer Olympic Games, but after what’s been a very quiet spring, Spain’s “Balaverde” is sure to show up perfectly fueled for the Ardennes, where he won Liège in 2006.

With most of the big Belgian shooters resting their legs after the northern classics, it seems only Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) will be making noises this week for the Belgian contingent on what are nearly his home roads.

A native of Belgium’s French-speaking Ardennes region, Gilbert can win on the cobbles (ie., Het Volk) as well as the climbs featured in Liège and Amstel. He’d love nothing more than hit stride this week to score a huge win.

High Road, meanwhile, will be putting all of its Amstel eggs into the Kim Kirchen basket.

Despite the presence of Andreas Klier and the young sprinting pair of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Gerald Ciolek, the Luxembourg-native won two stages at the Basque Country tour to earn the team’s backing.

“He’s our man for Amstel. When it comes to the final, our real card to play will be Kim. He did a brilliant performance in the Tour of the Basque Country, and deserves some good support in Holland,” said High Road director Ralf Aldag in a team release. “It’s a race you have to really know in order to do really well in it. It’s got narrow lanes, a challenging race route and climbs you maybe didn’t expect popping up left right and center.”

ProTour leader Andre Greipel, a pure sprinter who would struggle over the bumpy Amstel course, is heading to the Tour de Georgia instead. Michael Barry, fresh off the Basque tour, is also lining up for High Road.

An on-form Damiano Cunego (Lampre) could roar through this year’s Ardennes and perhaps convince everyone but himself that he’s more suited for the classics than grand tours. Cunego is skipping the Giro d’Italia this year to focus on the Tour instead, but it’s the Ardennes and the Giro di Lombardia where he’ll be always be a five-star favorite.

Teammate Alessandro Ballan, fresh off third at Paris-Roubaix, will be Lampre’s other card to play.

Compatriot Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) will be anxious to show that he’s recovered from his nasty crash at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Cauberg is just the kind of finishing climb the flamboyant Italian loves.

Slipstream-Chipotle is switching gears into the Ardennes after a spectacular cobbles campaign and is expected to liven things up, perhaps sending one of its troopers into an early breakaway.

“We have (David) Millar and (Ryder) Hesjedal, so we’ll see if we can keep those guys into position,” sport director Johnny Weltz told VeloNews. “Rabobank lives all year for this race, so we can expect them to try to control things. We want to try something, but also stay out of trouble because these roads are dangerous. It’s one of the hardest races of the year.”

One rider could do well but isn’t here is Alberto Contador. Fresh off winning the Basque tour, the 2007 Tour champ won’t be starting Amstel nor Tour de Georgia as he takes a break ahead of rebuilding his form for the Dauphiné Libéré later this summer.

Astana, of course, is being left out of both Flèche and Liège by ASO and brings a mixed squad to Amstel, led by Vladimir Gusev, getting his lone crack at the spring classics at Amstel.

Milram brings 2000 winner and eternal fighter Erik Zabel along with former world champ Igor Astarloa, promising Slovak Martin Velits and Christian Knees.

“The Amstel Gold Race is a race that Erik Zabel likes,” said Milram sport director Gerry van Gerwen. “We have to be very attentive over the entire challenging course, in order to position Erik well in the finale. So it is surely an advantage for us that Martin Velits knows the region so well, because he lives and trains there.”

Others to watch include Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), who’s enjoyed a banner spring so far, Gerolsteiner’s joker Fabian Wegmann and perhaps one of the lean climbers from Euskaltel-Euskadi if the can survive in position heading to the final charge up the Cauberg.

Some history

Since it was bumped up by a week in the classics schedule, Amstel has become the traditional opener of what’s commonly called “Ardennes week.”

Technically, the Amstel route plies the roads of Holland’s hilly Limburg region, but it commonly gets bundled in with the Ardennes races at Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège by pundits and space-saving headline writers.

The 257.4km course provides for a long, challenging and dangerous afternoon for a mix of one-day specialists and grand tour contenders who battle over the endless series of narrow roads and fast, hard climbs.

On the race map, the route looks like a plate of spaghetti as the spindly course loops and weaves around dozens of short but steep climbs, called “heuvels” in the hilliest part of Holland.

The race starts in the Grote Markt in the bustling college town of Maastricht along the River Maas and twists and dives over the narrow farm roads to tackle the emblematic Cauberg climb twice before ending atop its steep ramps just outside of the resort town of Valkenberg.

Tens of thousands of rowdy Dutch fans drink plenty of Amstel to make the race sponsor more than happy.

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