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41st Amstel Gold Race - PT
Netherlands, April 16, 2006
By Anthony Tan in Maastricht, Netherlands
The fifth major Spring Classic stop and the only race on the UCI ProTour calendar with its naming rights aligned to a beer company (not that there's anything wrong with that!), the Amstel Gold race is the Netherlands' most prized cycling event.
Compared to the Eindhoven team time trial and the Benelux Tour, the two other ProTour events based in Holland (with the latter also held in Belgium and Luxembourg) that are just two years old, 2006 will mark the 41st edition of 'the Amstel'. Still, with its inception in 1966, it is by some margin the youngest of the classics in spring.
The severity of the climbs may not be as harsh as Flanders and the Amstel lacks the pavé of Roubaix, but this year's race, like recent editions before it, contains no less than 31 short climbs or bergjes spread across southern Limburg. Its finale is situated atop Valkenburg's famous one-in-seven Cauberg climb after 253.1 kilometres' racing - and that comes after two previous ascents.
Starting in Maastricht's Grote Markt (in case you're wondering, just about every decent-sized town in the Benelux has one of these), the race follows a nor'-nor'-east direction to its northernmost point at Stein, following the picturesque Maas River for the first 13.5 kilometres and naturally climbing the Maasberg en route.
After Stein, it's a fast run down south into Valkenburg, then twisting, turning and climbing in a seemingly infinite series of circuitous routes around south Limburg. Stretching as far east as Simpelveld and Vaals, as far south as Gemmenich, Slenaken and Norbeek, and as far west as Maastricht, it's most certainly a race where local knowledge often plays a deciding role.
To date, the Netherlands has produced 17 winners in 40 editions, the most prolific being Jaan Raas, scoring four straight victories from 1977-80 with his last in '82. However, the last 'local' was five years ago when the ever-cunning Erik Dekker triumphed over seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong in a two man 'sprint'; the American also second in 1999 to another Dutchman, Michael Boogerd, who, unfortunately for 'Boogie', is known more for his three seconds (2000, 2003-4).
It comes as little surprise to see the Rabobank team again topping the list of favourites this year. Dekker and Boogerd are back for another crack, along with the prodigious Thomas Dekker (no relation to Erik), Brabantse Pijl winner Oscar Freire, returning to racing after skipping the cobbled classics, 'the Spanish Flandrien', Juan Antonio Flecha, impressive in last weekend's Paris-Roubaix, as well as Peter Weening, Bram De Groot, and Joost Posthuma.
On Wednesday this week, the team trained over virtually the entire Amstel parcours, and it became apparent the pressure to produce a Dutch winner is significant, as a large posse of local photographers and journalists followed their every move. Said assistant team manager Frans Maasen, himself a winner in 1991: "The pressure is always on our team with this Limburg classic. And now that we are still yet to win a big classic, there will only be one place that counts."
Defending champion Danilo Di Luca and 2003 winner Alexandre Vinokourov are missing from this year's line-up, but '04 champion Davide Rebellin will be on the start line in Maastricht, along with a multitude of contenders.
Instead of Di Luca, who is choosing to focus on the Giro d'Italia, Liquigas can count on Stefano Garzelli and Luca Paolini. American Chris Horner, Peter Van Petegem and Johan Vansummeren can do the job for Davitamon-Lotto. With Tom Boonen on vacation, Paolo Bettini and Milano-Sanremo champ Filippo Pozzato are Quick.Step-Innergetic's main men. CSC have at least three: Karsten Kroon, Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt.
Alejandro Valverde is a good bet from Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears, but if he's not in form, one can look to Vicente Reynes or Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta. Euskaltel-Euskadi's Unai Etxebarria and Samuel Sanchez are most probably more than happy to see an absence of pavé. Liberty Seguros-Würth is spoilt for choice - Alberto Contador, Allan Davis, Jörg Jäksche, Angel Vicioso and David Etxebarria can all win on their day. Koldo Gil Perez is a natural leader for Saunier Duval-Prodir, as are Jose Angel Gomez Marchante and Ruben Lobato.
It's still too early in the season for Francisco Mancebo from AG2R Prévoyance, but his team-mate Christophe Moreau has a chance. Only two Frenchmen have won the Amstel Gold - Jean Stablinski in 1966 and Bernard Hinault in 1981 - and things don't look any changing anytime soon, but one could cast outside bets with Bouygues Telecom's Jerome Pineau and Thomas Voeckler, along with Sylvain Chavanel and Stephane Auge from Cofidis. And although from a French team, Belgian Phillippe Gilbert is Française des Jeux's strongest card.
As well as Rebellin, Gerolsteiner has Fabian Wegmann and Heinrich Haussler. Germany's other ProTour team, T-Mobile, will lead with Patrik Sinkewitz, Steffen Wesemann and Sergey Ivanov, but Andreas Klier could also cause a surprise.
After last week's podium performance in Roubaix, Lampre-Fondital's Alessandro Ballan showed his good form isn't over just yet and the Cauberg finish suits his explosive style. Phonak have Axel Merckx and Martin Elminger. Discovery Channel and Crédit Agricole boast solid line-ups, though no-one truly in top form. And out of the five teams granted wildcard entries, Barloworld's Igor Astarloa and Unibet.com's Frank Vandenbroucke are the safest options.
For cycling fans, the Amstel's a delight; for riders, it's a bloody hard way to spend Easter Sunday.
Cyclingnews will be covering the 41st Amstel Gold Race live, beginning at 10:00 local time (CEST)/04:00 EDT (USA East)/01:00 PDT (USA West)/19:00 AEST (Australia East).