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SITTARD, THE NETHERLANDS — Workers bustled about at the finish line of the Amstel Gold Race Wednesday, unloading pallets of beer, putting the finishing touches on VIP tents and decks. Red Amstel flags billowed in the ever-present wind, and a few cyclists took to the finale of the Amstel Gold Race.
But it was oddly quiet here. Maybe the Dutch are just getting ready for the party on Sunday. It’s the biggest race held in The Netherlands, and this is a country that loves cycling fiercely. Cyclists jump on wheels when passed, and attack at the bottom of the Cauberg, the climb that will certainly shape Sunday’s podium.
The home nation will have much to cheer for when the starter’s pistol sounds Sunday morning in Maastricht. Home team Belkin brings an effective unit to battle, and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was the first Dutchmen to win Paris-Roubaix since Servais Knaven in 2001, surely adding a bit more passion to the local scene. The last Dutchman to win Amstel was Erik Decker, in 2001. Jan Raas, also of the Netherlands, has the most wins at AGR, with five.
It’s an important race on the calendar for many a rider, but perhaps none more than a Dutchman.
“The Amstel is perhaps the best race of the year for a Dutchman. The fans show up in large numbers and they are very enthusiastic,” said one of Belkin’s danger men, Bauke Mollema. “After Niki Terpstra’s victory in Paris-Roubaix, I think things will be extra special. After our success in last year’s Tour de France, people will be excited to see us race as well. It could become a wonderful edition. As a team, we hope to provide the people with a good result.”
Belkin brings Laurens ten Dam, Jos van Emden, Jonathan Hivert, Paul Martens, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Bram Tankink and David Tanner to Amstel, with high hopes for Mollema, who finished sixth in last year’s Tour de France.
Mollema tuned for Amstel at Pais Vasco, picking up steam toward the end of the week after a tough start. “During the final stages, I gained a lot of confidence. I finished fifth in a mountain stage with an uphill finish and one day later, I was in a break until very late in a tough stage,” he said in a team release. “It proves that my condition is fine and that I’m at my level. I’m really looking forward to Sunday.”
In the last two editions, Mollema has finished tenth. That wouldn’t be enough this time around. “If I finish tenth again, I won’t be in a jubilant mood. Last year, I often finished between the fifth and tenth place in the Walloon classics. It would be nice to get a top five this year,” he said. “I like the new finish, it makes the race more open because now you can also attack after the Cauberg. Last year it wasn’t in my favor, as I arrived at the top of the Cauberg in fifth position, while I ended up tenth at the line. Next time, it could well be the other way round, though.”
Even Belkin’s director Frans Maassen comes from this region and — of course — won the race in 1991. “We haven’t won the Amstel for a long time and we won’t be the biggest favorite on Sunday, but we are 100 percent motivated and will do whatever we can,” Maassen said. “Bauke is our captain. Paul Martens and Lars Petter Nordhaug also have a free role. We have guys with knowledge of the course and experience and we really want to show ourselves. We want to compete for the win.”