42nd Amstel Gold Race - PT
Netherlands, April 22, 2007
A Gerolsteiner one-two in Valkenburg
Stefan Schumacher has continued in his evolution as a big rider by winning the 42nd Amstel Gold race today. Benefiting from the presence of co-leader Davide Rebellin in a small, high-quality front group, the 25 year-old Gerolsteiner rider jumped away with just under three kilometres to go and quickly opened a decisive lead.
As the others in the group - namely Rebellin, home favourite Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), world champion Paolo Bettini (Quickstep-Innergetic), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) and Matthias Kessler (Astana) - watched each other, fearful of starting a chase, an impressive Schumacher thundered onto the Cauberg and dug deep all the way to the top.
The elated rider hit the line 21seconds ahead of a fast-finishing Rebellin, making it a one-two for the Gerolsteiner squad, while Di Luca took third. Kessler had been clear of the chasers on the final climb but was passed by the Italians inside the final 100 metres, meaning he had to be satisfied with fourth.
"I can't believe it," said Schumacher, smiling happily at the post race press conference. "For sure, this is the greatest win of my career.
"Both of us tried to attack [in the finale]. Davide tried on the Keutenberg and then I went later. I was the one who had to attack [before the climb] because Davide was the guy for the sprint on the Cauberg. He showed that at the end. I had the perfect moment to attack, and to get first and second is the perfect result for us."
There were rumours yesterday that the friendly German would not be starting the race due to a hard fall he had last Saturday. However he was certainly here, and riding at least as well as when he took two stage wins in the 2006 Giro d'Italia.
"I crashed on the last stage of the Pays Basques, ending with a big wound. I needed twelve stitches. The next day my knee was twice the size as normal. I rested for four days, took care of the injury and only started training again on Wednesday.
"Sometimes cycling is crazy. You are 100 % but things don't work out like you want, and then when you are not 100%, things can turn out great."
Schumacher had a brief scare at the foot of the final climb when his chain slipped. This actually worked to his advantage in the end. "I had problems with my gear at the bottom of the Cauberg. I was going to use my big chainring but then decided to use the lower one. I had problems with the chain when dropping it down, giving me a bit of a scare, so I put it back on the big chainring and it went well on that!"
Teammate and new ProTour leader Davide Rebellin was victorious three years ago, the year he won the incredible trio of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Getting second shows he is back in strong shape. "I am in good form and I was able to finish close today," he said. "I want to win one of these three Classics, so this boosts my confidence for the next two races.
"Things worked out very well for us today. There were three riders from Gerolsteiner in the lead and we knew that the race was on our shoulders at that moment. Of course, the first one to try was Wegmann, and after that I remained up front with Schumacher."
He said that he was not surprised with how things turned out. "I knew that Stefan could win a race like this one. He can win Classics and stage races, like he proved last year in winning the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Poland. He really deserved the victory today as he came back well after a bad crash in the Tour du Pays Basques last week.
"How would I define Stefan? He is a very fast rider, but also a very intelligent one. That is very important."
No fairytale ending:
Michael Boogerd may have had the best record of all the riders here, taking one win, four second places and two thirds since 1999, but his dream of scooping a second victory in what is his final year as a pro was dashed. He had to make do with fifth, while Valverde and Bettini both appeared slightly off their best form and they finished sixth and seventh respectively, 27" back.
Boogerd was undoubtedly disappointed, but was also remarkably gracious in defeat. "It is good like this," he said, putting a very positive spin on things. "I have never been fifth. Besides, I am happy that this was the last time I had to sprint up this hill. I am tired."
Although he once again got into the crucial move, the composition of the break meant that it was going to be very tough to win the race. "The front group had the best guys in the world at this type of racing, and I couldn't fight against three Gerolsteiner riders. The best rider won, because he had already attacked on a few occasions."
Steffen Wesemann was also philosophical in defeat. "I'm not really disappointed, because we reacted in the right way," he said, speaking about an earlier move with Jens Voigt (Team CSC) and Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital). They attacked the bunch and joined up with front runners Alexander Khatuntsev (Unibet.com), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), René Haselbacher (Astana), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Constantino Zaballa (Caisse d'Epargne) and Pieter Mertens (Predictor-Lotto), before pressing on ahead. They were finally reeled in by a chase group after the Gulperberg, with less than thirty kilometres remaining.
"Jens Voigt made the move, and I reacted," he continued. "We were hoping that the bunch would not decide to chase whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. If I had had a gap of one or one and a half minutes, then I would have been with the guys in front. It was a game that turned in favour of Gerolsteiner..."
It was also one which turned against CSC. Last year's winner Fränk Schleck (CSC) crashed hard with 47 kilometres to go and while he was able to get back to the bunch, the energy lost in that chase sapped his strength for the finale. He was in the group behind the leading septet on the run in to the finish, along with riders such as Oscar Freire and Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) plus Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir), but was unable to bridge across. He eventually finished a commendable tenth, 1'07 down.
The Luxemburger had hoped to take a rare double today but instead it was Schumacher who topped the podium, winning the race some seven years after compatriot Erik Zabel triumphed. Together with his two Giro stage wins, plus victories in the Eneco Tour and Tour of Poland, it is clear that Gerolsteiner - and Germany - has a very big rider for the future.
How it unfolded
At 10:15AM a rather small peloton of 180 riders rode away from the sun-drenched market of Maastricht. Not much happened during the first few ten kilometres but as soon as the riders hit the climbs numerous attacks were spotted.
On the Lange Raarberg Paul Martens (Skil-Shimano) and Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r Prévoyance) tried to get away but just after their effort another group, of five, sneaked away.
Dutchman Piet Rooijakkers (Skil-Shimano), Belgians Tom Stubbe (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen) and Nick Ingels (Predictor-Lotto) hit the roads together with Daniel Musiol (Wiesenhof-Felt) and Olivier Bonnaire (Bouygues Telecom). As soon as they got away after the third climb of the day the peloton decided to easy off so the leaders were granted an 'easy' lead.
The five men worked together quite well, and after 50 kilometres they were already more than three minutes ahead off the peloton. Despite tons of road furniture (traffic islands, etc) measures there weren't any serious crashes. After 65 kilometres the riders hit the Cauberg for the first time of three times.
The Dutch army was already present on the famous climb, preparing for what was to come. By then the leaders were almost five minutes ahead of the bunch. After two hours the average speed was 43,5 km/h, and when reaching the feed zone the lead was up to the day's eventual maximum gap of 8'30".
One by one the riders worked their way past the tough climbs in Limburg. At 97 kilometres to go the hills took their toll for Nic Ingels; the Belgian had to let go of his four colleagues and with 88 kilometres to go he was caught back by the peloton.
The speed in front dropped a little while the peloton was now led by Caisse d'Epargne for Valverde. It brought the lead down back to six minutes after 150 kilometres. Some riders were still able to take it easy and as Bram Tankink (Quickstep-Innergetic) took a natural break Pierre Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom) crashed behind him. The Frenchman wanted to do the same but he didn't spot the little border on the pavement. Fortunatly he was not seriously hurt.
A few moments earlier David López García (Caisse d'Epargne) crashed as well when he came back on the peloton at high speeds. It was just when the peloton almost at a standstill. Meanwhile, at the top of the Cauberg, Egoi Martínez (Discovery Channel) hit a motorbike but was able to continue.
During the second passage of the Cauberg, after 175 kilometres, the gap was just over three minutes with the peloton being led by strong old José Vicente Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne).
The peloton had now completed two big laps through the Limburg province, covering almost 190 kilometres. As soon as the 200 kilometres mark was coming closer the big guns moved to the front while the gap dropped back to less than two minutes.
On the Bemelerberg Alexander Khatuntsev (Unibet.com) attacked the peloton followed by Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), René Haselbacher (Astana), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Constantino Zaballa (Caisse d'Epargne) and Pieter Mertens (Predictor-Lotto). They were quickly joined by three men, Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), Jens Voigt (Team CSC) and Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital).
The speed in the peloton increased a lot as the finale was on. With 47 kilometres to go, last year's winner Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) crashed hard and stayed on the ground for some time. The crash looked nasty at first but eventually the Luxemburger was helped back on the bike by his team manager, 1996 Tour winner, Bjarne Riis.
On the Wolfsberg the initial break was caught by Wesemann, Voigt and Righi. Over the following climb of the Loorberg Wesemann, Voigt and Righi pulled off on their own, with the peloton on fast on their heels at only 20".
Meanwhile, Fränk Schleck did everything to come back to the front. When chasing back on, Schleck took a bottle from the team car and had a hand-sling off it, helping him to get around an official's car as the CSC car couldn't pass at that point; what made it look rather blatant was that Schleck immediately threw the full bottle to one side once he had got by. He joined the bunch just before the Gulperberg with only 30 kilometres to go.
The Gulperberg was the last climb featuring before the real finale started five kilometres later, with the Kruisberg and the famous Eyserbosweg. None of the favourites were expected to attack on the Gulperberg although they all lined up near the front.
Sinkewitz, Rebellin and Boogerd led the peloton over the top and it wasn't a surprise that a non-favourite like Carlos Barredo (Quickstep-Innergetic) attacked at that moment. The three leaders were only 10" ahead of the Barredo and the peloton, it was clear they didn't want strong guys like Voigt and Wesemann take too much distance.
The Six men joined the three leaders after the Gulperberg with Bram Tankink (Quickstep-Innergetic), Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile) and Laurens Ten Dam (Unibet.com) trying hard to anticipate the Kruisberg; eventually Barredo tried again but it all came back together when hitting the Kruisberg.
Astana led the peloton with Serguei Ivanov and Matthias Kessler, both obviously in good shape. Bettini was riding attentive in Boogies' wheels but, still, no favourites attacked the peloton. It was again Tankink who accelerated but he couldn't put any favourite into trouble.
Pieter Weening (Rabobank) then attacked in the few kilometres before the Eyserbosweg trying to anticipate the big guns. The Dutchman ended up leading the peloton on the Eyserbosweg, ahead of Serguei Ivanov, Boogerd, Valverde, Rebellin and Kroon. Then finally there was some serious fireworks coming from the favourites, starting from a man with twelve stitches in his knee.
Schumacher gave the first sign that he was on a good day when he attacked hard on the steep ascent of the Eyserbosweg, often a decisive climb in the race. Bettini went after him and dug deep to close the gap, as did Boogerd, while CSC's plan B Karsten Kroon faded.
The three had a slight gap on the descent but Rebellin and Kessler were able to bridge before they hit the next climb, the Fromberg. Behind, some big names were in the second group, including pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde, Danilo Di Luca, Oscar Freire and Riccardo Riccò. Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) tried to jump across on his own but was caught and dropped by Di Luca and Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner). Valverde then fired when it became clear that teammate Rodríguez was not going to bridge, also getting across and making it eight at the head of the race.
Gerolsteiner had three riders in the front, handing them a considerable advantage. This dropped to two when Wegmann went south on the penultimate climb of the day, the Keutenberg. The leaders continued to work well together as they headed into the final ten kilometres, realising that as long as they kept rolling through, one of them would win.
With about six kilometres to go, Schumacher attacked. He was quickly brought back but soon afterwards, Valverde and Di Luca were hanging back on the descent, several bike lengths off the group. This suggested that they were perhaps feeling the distance a little more than the others.
Inside three kilometres to go, the pace seemed to ease somewhat as the seven leaders started to watch each other. Schumacher timed things to perfection in jumping clear once more, opening up a promising lead and then digging deep to preserve the gap. Kessler chased for a couple of hundred metres but then swung aside, beckoning Valverde through. However the quality of the group ensured that the riders were nervous of each other, meaning that no one was fully committed.
Cauberg final ascent
Schumacher, however, was. He rode flat out to build his lead and once onto the climb, ground his way up the steep Cauberg to land a glorious victory. Kessler set off in pursuit and looked to have second place sewn up, but Rebellin and Di Luca swept by in the final metres to steal the remaining podium places.
Boogerd's lack of a sprint frustrated his chances of taking what would have been his eighth top three finish in nine years, meaning the Dutchman had to be content with fifth. No fairytale ending, therefore, but he will try again to land a big farewell result in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.