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The cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix have been left behind for another year and the unbeatable Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma - Quick Step) has concluded his pavé classics season. That means it is time for a new batch of one-day races in the Belgium/Netherlands region.
The Amstel Gold Race is the first of three hillier one-day races during the so-called Ardennes week, although technically it does not happen in the Ardennes but in the Limburg region. Flèche Wallonne will follow on Wednesday while Liège-Bastogne-Liège will conclude the Spring Classics season next Sunday.
The Amstel Gold Race is the biggest Dutch race on the international cycling calendar, featuring as a WorldTour event. Although it is regarded as a Classic, it is still a level below cycling Monuments like Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, probably due to its somewhat more recent founding, back in 1966.
The list of Amstel Gold Race winners is impressive; clearly the demanding course over the 31 steep bumps and narrow, twisting roads does not allow for random winners. Dutchman Jan Raas firmly holds the race record with five wins.
Since the finish line was moved from the flat Maas river banks in Maastricht to the top of the Cauberg in 2003, the race has often been decided in an uphill group sprint. At 10km from the foot of the Cauberg, a series of four climbs in 10km separates the wheat from the chaff. The ascents of the Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg and especially the penultimate climb of the day, the Keutenberg, are unforgiving; the latter has a portion with a 22 percent gradient.
The last two editions of the Dutch race were won by current Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Last year, Gilbert featured in a group of 13 riders which neutralized a solo effort from Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) halfway up the Cauberg. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) started the sprint halfway up the climb, but the Spaniard was no match for Gilbert. The Belgian grabbed the win with a huge gap over Rodriguez, Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and the rest of the group. The Walloon winner went on to dominate all of the hillier one-day Classics and much more races of the 2011 cycling season.
Gilbert switched teams this year and although he'll be lining up in start town Maastricht, in the south of Netherlands, his moderate form so far this season rules out a likely third victory. "You have to be realistic. I'm not a favorite," Gilbert said on Wednesday. He noted that this strategy is to follow others and hang on as long as possible.
After finishing 12th in the Brabantse Pijl. The BMC team will also be able to play the cards of Cadel Evans and Greg Van Avermaet, with Gilbert being at least the joker.
With the Belgian champion not enjoying great form, the major contenders to capture the win on top of the Cauberg in finish town Valkenburg are to be found elsewhere. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) are the other former winners at the start in Maastricht. Though they should have a good run once again, they don't seem to be enjoying the top form that brought them to their first win on the Cauberg. Cunego rode strong in the Basque Country, but in contrast to 2008 when he won the race, he hasn't scored a single win just yet.
Several other names pop up, ready to add their name to the list of winners for a first time. Spanish riders Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and last year's runner-up Joaquin Rodriguez seem to be the men to beat. Simon Gerrans already captured the win at Milano-San Remo this year and knows that he's capable of one day winning the uphill sprint on the Cauberg. Young rider Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) surely has that uphill sprint in his legs, but last year the endlessly twisting course didn't allow the Slovakian rider to feature in the group that sprinted for the win.
Fränk Schleck's younger brother remains a question mark after having finished few races so far this season. Andy Schleck continued his streak of DNFs on Wednesday when he crashed in the Brabantse Pijl. The Amstel might come too soon for Andy Schleck to launch a bold solo attack like he did last year. "I hope to be at my top form in Liège," Andy Schleck told Cyclingnews on Wednesday.
With young Belgian rider Ben Hermans, the American team has another card to play in the finale. Last year, he surprisingly featured in the group of thirteen behind Andy Schleck and he went on to finish eighth.
Dutch teams Rabobank and Vacansoleil-DCM will surely try to leave their mark on home soil. In the past, the Rabobank team often tried to control the race from far out but the facts are that they haven't won the race in the past decade. Erik Dekker was the last Dutch rider to win the Amstel Gold Race back in 2001. This time around Rabobank opted not to pretend they're the team to beat although they should mix in with the best with guys like Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema and Paul Martens. The Vacansoleil-DCM team is in a similar situation and they'll try to get home rider Rob Ruijgh, Johnny Hoogerland and Marco Marcato into position in the finale.
Like the Dutch teams the Garmin-Barracuda also has several cards to play with men like Ryder Hesjedal, Fabian Wegmann and home rider Thomas Dekker in their line-up. In the Sky team it'll be interesting to see how their young Colombian rider Sergio Henao deals with the rollercoaster course in the Limburg region after his strong debut in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) won the Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday afternoon, the first race of the four-race series which Gilbert dominated in 2011. While Frenchman stands little chance of winning an uphill sprint against specialists like Gilbert, Valverde and Rodriguez, he might have a chance if he makes a move earlier and gets away like Russian veteran Sergey Ivanov did when he won the race back in 2009.