It’s another busy week in Europe, highlighted by the Vuelta a Castilla y León in northern Spain and the Amstel Gold Race in the Limburg region of Holland.
Contador will be the big favorite on Spanish roads on a course ideal for the “pistolero del Pinto” to try to win his third stage race in four starts. There’s a treble of one-day races in France that draw a highly competitive field comprised mostly of French teams.
Amstel Gold in the hilly Limburg is the week’s highlight, with the skinny climbers taking over for the bulky cobblestone specialists to open “Ardennes week.” No one’s bothered to tell Flanders-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara that he’s supposed to be on the beach by now.
25th Vuelta a Castilla y León (2.1)
April 14-18 – Spain
Alberto Contador (Astana) is the star attraction of this ever popular five-day race in northern Spain that consistently draws a good field.
Contador is worried about spring allergies kicking in, but otherwise he will line up as the favorite to win his third crown in four years. With an individual time trial and one hard climb, the two-time Tour champ will be hard to beat if he’s motivated to win.
Defending champ Levi Leipheimer isn’t starting, but RadioShack will look to Portuguese sensation Tiago Machado to defend team colors. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) is another big name to watch, while Ted King and Joao Correia are starting for Cervélo.
The race opens with two relatively flat stages ideal for sprinters ahead of the stage three summit finish at the steep, Cat. 1 Alto de Morredero. A rolling time trial in Ponferrada is ideal for Contador before the finale into Galicia.
This year’s route breaks the mold a little bit, paying homage to the Camino de Santiago in what’s a “jubilee year” for the pilgrim’s route across northern Spain. The five stages trace the route across northern Spain and even leaves the Castilla y León region and finishes in Santiago de Compostela, where legend has it the bones of St. James are buried.
50th Brabantse Pijl (1.1)
April 14 – Belgium
Three-time winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) headlines the field in this Belgian semi-classic which will now put a bookend to the “northern classics” before the racing schedule shifts gears into the Ardennes.
Changes to the calendar prompted by the switch of Ghent-Wevelgem meant that Scheldeprijs, which typically held this spot on the calendar, was bumped up to Ghent’s former mid-week spot. Brabantse Pijl was shunted aside by the aspirations of grandeur by Ghent-Wevelgem organizers and the race was moved to this calendar date.
Most of the big names from the cobblestone classics are already heading to the beach for vacation, but other riders racing this weekend in Amstel Gold Race will be stretching their legs, including the likes of Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Simon Gerrans (Sky).
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) is not participating, but other North Americans include Michael Barry (Sky), Dominique Rollin (Cervélo) – both of whom had excellent performances at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday – along with Kirk Carlsen, Steven Cozza and Danny Pate (all Garmin-Transitions) and Bjorn Selander (RadioShack). BMC is bringing Chad Beyer, Brent Bookwalter, Jeff Louder and John Murphy.
51st GP du Denain (1.1)
April 15 – France
Three-time defending champion Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun) will be leading the field for this mid-week French race favoring the sprinters. Edvald Boasson Hagen won this race in his rookie 2008 season. The course is held near Valenciennes, drawing all the top French teams.
25th Tour de Finistère (1.1)
April 17 – France
Another mid-week French races, this time starting and finishing in Quimper in the hilly and windy Bretagne region of western France. A tougher challenge than Denain, the route favors the attackers and aggressive riding.
8th Ronde van Gelderland (1.2.)
April 17 – Holland
Women’s racing continues in Holland which will see some big names taking part. Cervélo and HTC-Columbia continue their fight to try dominate the racing, with Ina-Yoko Teutenberg as defending champion. Evelyn Stephens and Kim Anderson start for HTC-Columbia with the Canadian national team clicking in for the race.
45th Amstel Gold Race (PT)
April 18 – Holland
Held on the narrow, wind-buffeted farm roads of the Holland’s hilly Limburg region, Amstel Gold Race marks the opening of Ardennes week. Though purists will point out that the Limburg is geographically distinct from the Ardennes, it keeps things simple for headline writers and race promoters.
Road work could have a major impact on the race near Eys, where riders will be forced to climb the fearsome Eyserbosweg climb twice: first at 160km and a second time at 237km. The number of climbs remains the same at 31 and the distance will be a gut-busting 257.8km.
The race otherwise remains unchanged since the finish line was moved to the Cauberg hill-top finish near Valkenberg. The course traces a series of loops that looks like a plate of spaghetti, which a nerve-rattling endless string of tight corners.
Position is everything – and avoiding crashes – to have any chance of success. The moves come late and it’s always an emotional charge up the Cauberg, where thousands of fans have been swilling refreshments served by the title sponsor for hours.
Katusha brings a strong squad with defending champion Serguei Ivanov, Joaquin Rodríguez and Kim Kirchen. Flanders-Roubaix champ Fabian Cancellara is lining with a stacked Saxo Bank with the Schleck brothers, including former winner Frank Schleck.
Chris Horner, fresh off victory at the Basque Country tour, is an outsider for the podium if he survives the cluttered approach to the final climbs, though Flèche Wallonne next week is even better suited for Horner’s top form right now.
Astana lines up with two pairs of brothers – Davis and Iglinsky – while the on-form Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) will be one of the favorites.
Lars Boom and Robert Gesink will carry all the weight of home-road favorites Rabobank in what’s the biggest Dutch race of the year. Despite such heavy pressure to win, you have to go all the way back to Erik Dekker in 2001 to find a Dutch winner.
Garmin-Transitions will line up with a strong squad, led by Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Meier, Stephen Cozza and Danny Pate along with Martyn Maaskant and Johan Van Summeren.
Vicenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger bring firepower to Liquigas while Simon Gerrans – top 10s in all three hilly classics last year – leads a loaded Sky team.
Local fave Karsten Kroon will lead BMC, that also lines up with Marcus Burghardt, Jeff Louder and Brent Bookwalter. Dominique Rollin continues on his classics adventure with Cervélo.
27th Tro-Bro Léon (1.1)
April 18 – France
Said Haddou (Bbox) won last year’s edition that completes a busy week of racing in France. The hilly profile does not guarantee a bunch sprint, especially when foul weather and wind are thrown into the mix.