A little more than six months after taking his world title in Valkenburg with a spectacular attack on the Cauberg, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is looking to win again on the same course and add a third Amstel Gold Race to his palmares.
Belgian riders have won the Amstel Gold Race 11 times, the Netherlands being unsurprisingly, the record holders with 17 victories. Gilbert has provided two of Belgium's haul, in 2010 and 2011. He was sixth last year after a difficult spring and was also fourth in 2009.
Second to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in Wednesday's Brabantse Pijl was indicative of Gilbert's rising form and on paper, the change in the Amstel route to a finish identical to the one in the 2012 World’s should favour Gilbert.
He told Belgian media on Friday that “what was interesting was that I was up there [on Wednesday] at the end with Greg [Van Avermaet - BMC] and we did a good team race.”
“This Sunday, it shouldn’t be up to us to have the greatest responsibility in the race, but I don’t like riding defensively. I’m going to be watching and waiting.”
Gilbert warned that the opposition will be far stronger than at Brabantse Pijl, with riders like Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 2008 Amstel winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) all present on Sunday.
“The other good news is the weather, which will be a lot sunnier than in previous weeks. In any case, I’ll know a lot more by Sunday evening” - about his rivals' condition and his own - “because often those who are up there in Amstel are also up there in Liege,” Gilbert predicted.
Although the Cauberg holds no secrets for Gilbert, even Amstel rookies will have ample time to get it to know it well, given that the race goes up the emblematic climb four times, with the finish now 1,800 metres of relatively level road after the summit.
Gilbert may have excellent memories of the new finish, but he warns: “A Classic is not a World Championships. So I can’t expect to imagine the race will have an identical scenario. The finish is the same, though, and so is the final goal – to win.”
“Right now I can imagine two scenarios: 40 riders at the finish after a race that’s completely shut down and everything remains to play for at the foot of the Cauberg. Or six or seven riders away in a break, all of them tired out and fighting it out for the win. Personally, I prefer the second option.”
“Who’s capable of beating Sagan?” he asked rhetorically. “Often there’s a rider who is head and shoulders above the rest” - as Gilbert was in 2011, winning Amstel, Fleche and Liege - “and for the moment it’s him. But I won’t be racing for him to lose, I’ll be riding my own race, and I hope that everybody does the same rather than simply try to sink the favourite. We should each ride with our own objectives and may the best man win.”
Van Avermaert hoping it is his turn to win
The Amstel Gold Race may well be the last Classic race for Van Avermaet this spring after a string of top ten results and some aggressive racing. He was sixth at De Brabantse Pijl, after starting his spring at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad back in February, where he finished fifth.
“So far I’ve run up against either an in-form [Fabian] Cancellara (RadioShack) or an in-form Peter Sagan (Cannondale), but that was the case for the rest of the field,” Van Avermaet pointed out.
“It’d be nice if the win came this Sunday, for Phil or for me. I was still recovering from Paris-Roubaix on Wednesday, I should be stronger this weekend. And two [contenders] are stronger than one and Phil’s motivation is definitely rising after Wednesday’s race.”