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42nd Amstel Gold Race - PT

Netherlands, April 22, 2007

A changing of guard

By Gregor Brown

Schleck's 2006 winning attack
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

The 42nd Amstel Gold Race marks the transition from pavé of the previous weeks to rolling asphalt roads through the Ardennes. The shift in parcours signals a changing of guard: gone are the Flandrian hard men, whose large frames are an advantage on the rough pavé. The Ardennes Classics phase in the slender climbers who will also go on to contest the Flèche Wallonne (Wednesday) and Liège-Bastogne-Liege (next Sunday).

The Amstel Gold Race is the youngest of the seven major Spring Classics, but has gained popularity over the years, particularly in the last 15 years, when it has been dominated by riders from outside of Holland. Recent winners include Luxembourger Fränk Schleck and Italians Danilo Di Luca and Davide Rebellin, but the annals are also filled with greats, like local hero Jan Raas, Belgian Eddie Merckx and Frenchman Bernard Hinault.

The pretzel-like parcours twists and turns on itself in a manner similar to that of the Ronde van Vlaanderen; making the course fan-friendly, but also favouring the rider with local knowledge. The climbs are not cobbled and leg-sapping like de Ronde, but with 31 climbs, or bergs, the riders will face 13 more hills than the Hellingen of the Belgian Classic.

The race starts its 252.2 kilometre journey to Valkenburg from Maastricht. The riders will roll out of the Grote Markt at 10:21 and head north towards Stein, covering the first of 31 climbs. From Stein the race will turn back south, east towards Voerendaal and then back west towards Maastricht. Along the way west they will encounter the Cauberg (climb number 6, in Valkenburg) for the first of three times, the second time being climb number 21 and the last being the final climb, to the finish.

The typical Dutch windmill
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

Beyond the first passage of the Cauberg, the riders will complete another two counter-clockwise loops and take in the remainder of the 25 climbs. The second ascent of the Cauberg marks a decisive point in the race, and the teams will begin to setup their leaders for the final push into Valkenburg. The home team, Rabobank, will look to control the race to try to produce its first win since Erik Dekker overhauled Lance Armstrong in a two-up sprint in 2001.

The odds have been against the Dutch as the status of the race has grown over the years, and Dutch wins have been scant in the past decade. Holland has produced 17 winners in 40 editions, the most prolific being Jaan Raas, who scored four straight victories from 1977-1980, and his last Amstel gold in 1982. Michael Boogerd won the race in 1999, but is better known for his four seconds (2000, 2003-2005). After announcing that he will retire at the end of 2007, 'Boogie' will desperately hope for a swan song in Valkenburg.

The chances for the Dutch riders might be slim, but the Dutch team could have better odds with one of its two Spaniards, Oscar Freire or Juan Antonio Flecha. Freire showed his class and versatility earlier this season by winning Milano-Sanremo and then taking third in Gent-Wevelgem. Likewise, Flecha was on form in last weekend's Paris-Roubaix, where he finished second.

While Rabobank's Spaniards will be in with a chance, they'll have to content with last year's ProTour champion, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). In 2006 the Spaniard, who went on to win both Flèche-Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, missed the decisive move in Amstel, and finished well down in 23rd place. Then, in 2006 Tour de France, he was struck down in the same region of Valkenburg. With 22 kilometres to go in stage three he crashed, broke his collarbone and was forced to retire from the Tour.

Caisse d'Epargne director Eusebio Unzúe believes that Valverde would prefer victory at Amstel over repeat wins in the following Ardennes Classics. "It would be the Amstel," he said to Cyclingnews. "Because Valverde has still not won it. The difficulty of its finale suits him very well."

Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

Valverde will have to hold off the onslaught of the Italians if he hopes to be victorious in Valkenburg. World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quickstep-Innergetic) has won almost every big race under the sun, but he has yet to add Amstel to his palmarès; the highest place he managed was in 2004, where he finished third. He has had two weeks of rest following his performance in Ronde, and he should come out firing, which will make him a number one favourite.

Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) will be another Italian contender. Rebellin won this race in 2004 before going on to make history by scoring victories in the rest of the Ardennes Classics. This year, his form is not as hot and he could sacrifice his chances to help German Stefan Schumacher.

Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) can never be counted out in a race with an uphill sprint. Di Luca won Amstel in 2005, and, with wins in Milano-Torino and Coppi e Bartali this year, he and Saunier Duval's 23 year-old phenom Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir) will be riders to watch. Like Di Luca, Riccò is building his form for the Giro d'Italia.

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) will be a dark-horse to watch. He showed his capabilities by winning last year's Züri-Metzgete, and after a quiet start to the year, he began showing form by winning stage six of last week's País Vasco. Both Sánchez and last year's Amstel Gold Race winner Frank Schleck have laid low all spring, but either one could pull off a coup. As 2006 winner, Schleck will have confidence and a bit of calmness about him that will allow cold calculations in the heat of the race.

Other names that could appear towards the finale on the Cauberg are Kim Kirchen and Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), who was third in Roubaix, Schleck's teammate Karsten Kroon, Matthias Kessler (Astana) and Boogie's teammate Thomas Dekker.

Cyclingnews will be covering the Amstel Gold Race live. Coverage begins around 10:30 local European time (CEST)/ 4:30 (USA East)/ 19:30 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/