By Andrew Hood
Lance Armstrong’s bad luck run at the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands continued Saturday with an ugly repeat of a narrow loss to a Rabobank rider.
Two years ago, Armstrong lost by inches to Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, heralding the Texan’s dramatic return to racing following his comeback from testicular cancer. In a repeat of a bad dream, Armstrong lost to Rabobank’s Erik Dekker this year as the pair charged into the finish in Maastricht clear of the chase group.
Armstrong attacked with 40km to go in the 258km, 29-climb race through the rolling hill country of southern Holland. Wind and rain marred the early going, but the sun shone down on Armstrong as he attacked in the last of five spring World Cup classics.
Dekker, a winner of three Tour stages and the Clasica San Sebastian last year, bridged to Armstrong and Tacconi Sport’s Eddy Mazzoleni. Dekker and Armstrong dropped the Italian with 28kmto go and rode alone to the finish.
“Maybe Lance didn’t know it, but I was completely dead at that point. I had just closed the gap of 35 seconds against a headwind,” Dekker said. “He tried to attack at Cauberg, but I stayed with him and it gave me some confidence that he wasn’t going to drop me.”
Dekker and Armstrong played a cat-and-mouse game over the final stretch, with Dekker sitting ahead of Armstrong. The Dutch rider sprinted the final 200 yards ahead of Armstrong, who was forced to move from his left to his right against heavy crosswinds in a vain effort to get around Dekker.
“At a certain point in a situation like that you just have to go, because if you wait too long for the guy in the back to go, you lose,” Dekker said. “It’s nice to beat the Tour de France winner.”
For Dekker, it was a huge victory in front of the home crowd, catapulting him into the overall lead of the 10-round World Cup series. For Armstrong, it was another World Cup disappointment. The two-time defending Tour de France champion has finished second six times in World Cup races with one win coming at the Clasica San Sebastian in 1995. Armstrong did not speak with reporters after the race.
Early in the race, 21 riders escaped off the front. Strong crosswinds and cold rain walloped the peloton and scores of riders abandoned on the first of three loops when the course passed close to the warmth and comfort of team buses.
The brutal pace of the race lead to heavy bleeding among the ranks. Only 37 riders crossed the finish line, 153 riders abandoned and seven teams had no riders at all finishing.
With100km to go and a 4:35 lead, the lead group splintered into a strong pack of 11 riders that included George Hincapie and U.S. Postal Service teammate Jose Luis Rubiera and fellow American Fred Rodriguez of Domo. Cagey veteran Andrei Tchmil had two Lotto teammates to protect him in Jereon Blijlevens and Glenn D’Hollander.
Pre-race favorites Telekom and Rabobank didn’t have their star riders in the break and both teams worked hard to limit the damage. At the second of three passes at the Cauberg climb, the margin of the lead group was whittled to 1:54 with 70km to go.
The Hincapie-Tchmil group was down to seven riders holding a 1:02 gap, as Rodriguez dropped back with 52km to go. Mercury-Viatel’s Leon Van Bon made a vain attempt to shake the lead chase group. With Hincapie in the lead group, Armstrong was riding defensively but ready to pounce if the break was reeled in.
Things fell apart and the break was reeled in with 47 km to go at the final feed zone, and Armstrong didn’t bide his time for very long. With 41km to go just before the Loorberg climb, Armstrong sprung off the front of the lead group of two dozen riders. Only Mazzoleni could answer. The pair punched over the short but steep climb with a 35-second gap and Dekker gave chase.
With 30km to go, Dekker caught Armstrong and Mazzoleni while five riders worked at 55 seconds back, including Mapei’s Michele Bartoli, Domo’s Johan Museeuw, Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd and Marc Lotz, and Mercury-Viatel’s Peter Van Petegem. Van Petegem flatted in the late going and finished sixth, the best World Cup result so far for the American team.
At Keutenberg, a steep 22-percent grade climb at 28km to go, Dekker and Armstrong shook off Mazzoleni and worked together 1:06 ahead of their pursuers.
Armstrong attacked hard on the final pass at Cauberg, but Dekker easily checked him, much to the delight of thousands of fans lining the climb. With 15km to go, the lead was a comfortable 1:22 and the duo danced their way up the last of 29 climbs at Geulhemmerberg and stormed together to the finish, where Rabobank once again foiled Armstrong.
1. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 254.6km in 6:39:13
2. Lance Armstrong (USA), s.t.
3. Serge Baguet (B), at 0:17.
4. Markus Zberg (Swi)
5. Johan Museeuw (B), both s.t.
6. Peter Van Petegem (B), at 0:20
7. Michele Bartoli (I)
8. Davide Rebellin (I)
9. Michael Boogerd (Nl)
10. Chris Peers (B), all s.t.
11. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), at 0:23.
12. Marc Lotz (Nl), at 2:08.
13. Wilfried Peeters (B), at 2:38.
14. Oscar Camenzind (Swi), at 2:41.
15. Igor Astorloa (Sp)
16. Gianluca Bortolami (I)
17. Andrei Tchmil (B)
18. Scott Sunderland (Aus)
19. Michael Blaudzun (Dk)
20. Davide Casarotto (I)
21. Cedric Vasseur (F)
22. Christian Vandevelde (USA)
23. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl)
24. Fernando Escartin (Sp)
25. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), all s.t.
34. George Hincapie (USA), at 9:14.
37. Leon van Bon (PBS), s.t.