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43rd Amstel Gold Race - PT

Netherlands, April 20, 2008

The Ardennes men arrive

By Gregor Brown

Scenery along the 43rd Amstel Gold Race – Holland's 257.4-kilometre Classic running Sunday, April 20
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

The Ardennes Classics start this Sunday with the 43rd Amstel Gold race, April 20. The race – in Hollands's Valkenburg zone – runs over 257.4 kilometres and is the precursor to La Flèche Wallonne (Wednesday) and the oldest of them all, Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Sunday).

The event marks the transition from races that feature pavé of varying quality, such as the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, to the ones with rolling asphalt roads through the Ardennes region of Belgium and Holland. The pagan goddess Arduinna will watch down on her land as the equally-tough - but somewhat lighter - riders who excel on the climbs come to the front of the peloton, with the relentless up-and-down nature of the parcours taking its toll on the heavier riders who excel on the cobbles. Instead, Boonen, Cancellara and co. may be at home watching this race on television.

The Amstel Gold Race - the 'youngest' of the seven major Spring Classics - is perhaps under-rated for its toughness, as there are over 30 climbs along the route. Over the last 15 years there has been a host of non-Dutch winners, such as Germany's Stefan Schumacher, Luxembourg's Fränk Schleck and Italy's Danilo Di Luca and Davide Rebellin, while further down in the annals stars like local hero Jan Raas, Belgium's Eddy Merckx and France's Bernard Hinault appear.

The parcours offers fans plenty of opportunity to see the riders go flying by as it repeats many of the climbs throughout its 257.4-kilometre journey from Maastricht to Valkenburg. The roads twist and turn on themselves and favour a local rider with intimate knowledge of the course, which first rolls north before coming back south towards Valkenburg and the start of the 31 bergs.

Top-favourite and recent Paris-Camembert Lepetit winner, Spain's Alejandro Valverde
Photo ©: Susanne Goetze
(Click for larger image)

The 184 riders depart from the Grote Markt at 10:21, head north towards the first climb and then make the turn-back in Geleen. The race will turn back south (climbs Adsteeg and Lange Raarberg), east towards Voerendaal and then back west towards Maastricht. Along the way west the riders will face the Cauberg (climb number six, in Valkenburg) for the first of three times – the second as climb number 21 and the last as the finish.

Following the Cauberg at 185.9 kilometres remaining, the riders will complete two counter-clockwise loops to the south where they will encounter the next 25 climbs. The second ascent of the Cauberg at 76.3 kilometres remaining should see a change in race rhythm as the teams of the favourites will start to make their appeared at the front to face the Geulhemmerweg (-72.8km), Bemelerberg (-59.1km), Wolfsberg (-42km), Loorberg (-36.4km), Gulperberg (-28.1km), Kruisberg (-22.6km), Eyserbosweg (-18.6km), Fromberg (-16.8km), Keutenberg (-12.3) and the Cauberg.

Recent Paris-Nice winner, Italy's Davide Rebellin is a hot-pick for the Amstel Gold
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Overall, the climbs are not cobbled leg-sapping affairs like in Ronde van Vlaanderen, but the sheer number will have all but the fittest riders fading off the back.

Holland has produced 17 winners in 40 editions, the most prolific being Jan Raas, who scored five victories – four in-a-row 1977-1980 and one in 1982; however, the odds have been against the Dutch in recent years. The home team, Rabobank, will seek to control the race for its first win since Erik Dekker overhauled Lance Armstrong in a two-up sprint in 2001. It showed its strength recently in the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen and, better yet, in the Gent-Wevelgem, where Oscar Freire capitalised on the team's work.

Look for the three-time World Champion Spaniard to lead the orange team with strong options coming from younger team-mate Thomas Dekker. Even though Freire will have home team support, watch a different Spanish conquestador to rule the Cauberg – Alejandro Valverde of Team Caisse d'Epargne. The 27 year-old knows the race well – 23rd in 2006 and sixth in 2007, not to mention his crash in the 2006 Tour de France on the same roads – and has the form as confirmed by his win in the Paris-Camembert Lepetit.

"My condition is better each day even if I know that my rivals' condition is very high and that it will not be easy for me," confirmed the rider known as the 'Green Bullet.'

Spaniard Oscar Freire will head home-team Rabobank
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Last year's winner, German Stefan Schumacher will not be a hot-favourite per se, but he will be a contender. Cyclingnews rates his Gerolsteiner team-mate and 2004 Amstel winner, Italian Davide Rebellin, much higher. 'Tintin' took the Tour du Haut Var early this spring and, more recently, conquered the overall of the Paris-Nice. He always rises to the challenge in the Ardennes Classics – winning all three in 2004 and the Flèche Wallonne last year – and you can bet he will be firing on Sunday.

Rebellin's countrymen, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) should not be counted out. Cunego is the favourite of the two young-guns with his recent win in the Klasika Primavera, while Riccò is a bit erratic – he could either be drinking the winner's Amstel beer or tossing his bike into the Geul canal.

Denmark's Team CSC will have its guns firing in the form of 2006 winner Fränk Schleck and his brother Andy, if the duo can't pull it off then they will gladly support their team-mate, Karsten Kroon. USA's Team High Road didn't get on to the podium in Paris-Roubaix, in spite of all its other wins this season, so look for Kim Kirchen to lead the team's Ardennes formation.

Other names to watch out for include Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale), Joaquím 'Montelupone' Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne), Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and Ryder Hesjedal (Slipstream Chipotle - H30).