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Bettini favored at Amstel Gold Race

Olympic champion Paolo Bettini is the hot favorite to win Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, the eighth event in the 2006 UCI ProTour. The Italian has never won this challenging Dutch classic, but he came in third on his last appearance at the race two years ago, and he has won most of the world’s other hilly classics: Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2000 and 2002, the Clasico San Sebastian in 2003, the Championship of Zürich in 2001 and 2005, and last October, the Tour of Lombardy. At age 32, Bettini is at his peak. His climbing strength has improved over the years, his sprint is better than ever (as he

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By John Wilcockson

Bettini, 32, is at his peak

Bettini, 32, is at his peak

Photo: AFP (file)

Olympic champion Paolo Bettini is the hot favorite to win Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, the eighth event in the 2006 UCI ProTour. The Italian has never won this challenging Dutch classic, but he came in third on his last appearance at the race two years ago, and he has won most of the world’s other hilly classics: Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2000 and 2002, the Clasico San Sebastian in 2003, the Championship of Zürich in 2001 and 2005, and last October, the Tour of Lombardy.

At age 32, Bettini is at his peak. His climbing strength has improved over the years, his sprint is better than ever (as he proved with two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico last month), and he has the full backing of a Quick Step-Innergetic team that is determined to bounce back from its big loss at Paris-Roubaix last Sunday.

Bettini hasn’t raced since the Tour of Flanders two weeks ago, where he was a huge factor in springing teammate Tom Boonen to victory. With Boonen now on a six-week break from racing, Bettini is the team’s undisputed leader. Said to be on great form after an intense training camp in Tuscany, Bettini says he preferred training to competing at last week’s ultra-tough Tour of the Basque Country, even though the past three Amstel Gold Race winners, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin and Alexander Vinokourov, all did the Spanish stage race as prep.

Neither Di Luca (Liquigas) nor Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros) is riding Amstel this year, preferring to focus on next Sunday’s “monumental” classic in Liège. Their absence opens the way for teammates on their respective squads — notably Luca Paolini of Liquigas and Allan Davis of Liberty — to take a shot at claiming their first classic victory.

However, Bettini’s strongest challengers on Sunday look like being past winners Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), and Caisse d’Épargne’s Alejandro Valverde — even though the young Spaniard’s best one-day performances remain second places at the 2003 and 2005 world’s.

The home fans will be rooting not only for Boogerd — who has finished second in each of the past three years — but also his unrelated Rabobank teammates Erik (the veteran) Dekker and Thomas (the big young hope) Dekker, along with prominent Dutch riders on rival teams: Karsten Kroon of CSC, Koos Moerenhout of Phonak and rookie Sebastian Langeveld of Skil-Shimano.

Only two Americans are among the 194 likely starters: CSC’s Christian Vande Velde, who is returning to the peloton after his crash at Paris-Nice, and Chris Horner, who has a chance to shine in the absence of his two Davitamon-Lotto team leaders, Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen. Horner hasn’t raced in this classic since he was with Française des Jeux in the late 1990s, but after a solid performance at last week Basque Country tour, he could shine in the green hills of Limburg.

The 41st edition of the Amstel Gold Race features 31 climbs on three intricate loops that lock together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each loop includes the 1km, 7.5-percent Cauberg in the rural town of Valkenburg — after 64km, 173km and the finish at 253km.

The six toughest climbs are all packed into the final 30km — which this year tackles the first of those six obstacles, the Gulperberg, from its much steeper southeastern side. With 25km to go, the race heads into very narrow back roads, with three rugged climbs (and descents) in quick succession: the Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg and Fromberg, before heading to the day’s steepest hill, the near-20-percent Keutenberg.

The Keutenberg could produce the winning break because the heavy rain and temperatures in the 40s forecast for Sunday morning will likely split up the race earlier than usual, leaving a select group to tackle the final kilometers. The pace is sure to be as frenetic as ever in the 11km that separate the Keutenberg summit from the foot of the Cauberg — where Bettini should be battling it out with Boogerd, Rebellin and Valverde.

In the UCI ProTour competition, Lampre-Fondital’s Alessandro Ballan has an excellent chance of taking the overall lead from the absent Boonen. After top finishes at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the third-year Italian pro is in second place, and a top-three finish Sunday would lift above Boonen.

Look for a detailed report of the Amstel Gold Race from Valkenburg on VeloNews.com on Sunday.

Handicapping the favorites

5-star
Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step

4-star
Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank
Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner
Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne

3-star
Igor Astarloa (Barloworld)
Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Phonak)
Filippo Pozzato (Quick Step)
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

2-star
Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), Cofidis
Alberto Contador (Sp), Liberty Seguros
Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros
David Etxebarria (Sp), Liberty Seguros
Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas
Philippe Gilbert (B), Française des Jeux
Chris Horner (USA), Davitamon-Lotto
José Gomez Marchante (Sp), Saunier Duval-Prodir
Karsten Kroon (Nl), CSC
Luca Paolini (I), Liquigas
Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC
Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile
Jens Voigt (G), CSC