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Local winner a long-shot in Sunday's Classic
Eric Dekker was the last Dutch winner of the Amstel Gold Race in 2001 when he beat Lance Armstrong.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Karsten Kroon (BMC) will be out to end a nine-year spell without a Dutch winner at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, but the odds look stacked against them as the best hilly classics riders in the peloton begin the week of the hilly Ardennes classics at the race.
Erik Dekker was the last Dutchman to raise the huge glass of beer awarded to the winner back in 2001 and Dutch riders have only won 17 of the 44 editions of the biggest one-day race in the Netherlands.
Kroon lives just 10km from the finish at the top of the Cauberg climb and finished second behind Serguei Ivanov (Katusha) in 2009. He will have world champion Cadel Evans to help him in this year but will have to beat former teammates Frank and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), a super strong and always aggressive Chris Horner (RadioShack), a win-hungry Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Spaniards Joaquin Rodriquez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne).
The recent change of date, moving before Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, has helped the Amstel Gold race grow and become a better race, and the finish atop the Cauberg climb always makes a thrilling finale to the event.
Before the Cauberg there are again 30 other short climbs that will hurt riders' legs and show who really is on form. The 259km race route starts in Maastricht and then twists and turns through the Limburg countryside. Some sections are little wider than a footpath. Throw in lots of road furniture, sharp turns and technical descents and it makes it imperative for the big names to ride near the front if they are to avoid crashes, splits and delays. That in turn creates a nervous but often thrilling race.
Saxo Bank will start the day without its ace Fabian Cancellara. Team manager Bjarne Riis wanted him to go for a hat trick of classics victories after dominating the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix but the Swiss star did not seem interested, saying he was looking forward to a break from racing.
Even without Cancellara, Saxo Bank have a powerful squad, with Frank Schleck likely to lead the team. He was third in the Klasika Primavera in Spain last weekend and seems to have found his form just on time for the Ardennes. Andy Schleck had to delay his start to the season due to injury but he can never be written off, while Jens Voigt will always be dangerous if he gets in the decisive final move.
It will also be interesting to see what Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam) can do, as the former Tour de France winner swaps stage racing for the Ardennes classics.
The Cauberg finish always shows who is the strongest in the final attack, with the best sprinters often snatching victory in the final metres. That makes the finish perfect for likes of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), but also Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese Vini) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step).
Outsiders include Maxime Monfort and Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Simon Gerrans (Team Sky).