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The Ardennes kick off in the Netherlands
The Amstel Gold Race podium: Enrico Gasparotto (Astana), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions)
The Amstel Gold Race marks the start of the Ardennes Classics trilogy with the twisting country lanes of the southern Limburg region of the Netherlands, replacing the cobbled climbs of Flanders and the sectors of pave of Paris-Roubaix.
The Ardennes week attracts a different set of riders, with the climbers replacing the cobbled classics specialist. Only a rare few, including last year's Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert, have the ability to win on both types of terrain, where the ability to absorb the constant accumulation of lactic acid from the climbs is more decisive than power and speed across the pave.
The Amstel Gold Race is the youngest of the spring classics having been created in 1966, and a move from the end of April to the first weekend of the Ardennes has made for a better race.
The race now finishes on the climb of the Cauberg, with the huge crowds enjoying the race after a few glasses of Amstel beer. It is perhaps only fair that one final climb decides the winner after 31 other climbs and 259km of racing through the twisting and turning lanes of Holland.
Who can stop Gilbert?
Philippe Gilbert dominated last year's race, dropping his rivals and powering to victory on the Cauberg, two seconds ahead of Canada's
Ryder Hesjedal. Enrico Gasparotto taking third, with the other Ardennes classics contenders spread over another 20 seconds.
Gilbert looked equally as strong in Wednesday's Brabantse Pijl when he attacked alone to jump across to the decisive break and then went with Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) before beating him in the sprint.
Gilbert didn't ride Paris-Roubaix and has described the Ardennes week as the biggest phase of his season. He wants another win in the
Amstel Gold Race but more than anything wants to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and so safe his best for Easter Sunday and his home race across the border in the Belgian Wallonne.
The Amstel Gold Race is the only major one-day Classic in the Netherlands and so is always a big goal for the Rabobank team. Yet
that desire to win often means their rivals take advantage and leave the Dutch empty handed. Erik Dekker was the last Dutchman to raise the long glass of Amstel beer awarded to the winner back in 2001 when he beat Lance Armstrong. Surprisingly, Dutch riders have only won 17 of the 44 editions of the race.
Rabobank has named a strong team that includes national hero Robert Gesink, Oscar Freire, Luis Leon Sanchez, Bram Tankink and Maarten Tjallingii, who was third in Paris-Roubaix after an aggressive ride.
However none of those riders have the same powerful finish as Gilbert and so Rabobank may have to follow a more aggressive strategy if they want to set up Gesink and Sanchez.
Fabian Cancellara usually ends his spring campaign at the Amstel Gold Race but opted not to ride last year, citing fatigue. He will be under more pressure to ride this year after taking the lead in the UCI World Tour ranking but if he does take the start, it will likely be in
support of Frank and Andy Schleck. Frank won in 2006 and seemed to be on better form at the recent Pais Vasco. Leopard Trek will also have Maxime Monfort, Jakob Fuglsang and Fabian Wegmann.
The Garmin-Cervelo team is on a high after its success in Paris-Roubaix and Hesjedal will be looking to continue their run of success
after their problems in the other classics. The lanky Canadian showed he is on form with a strong ride in Pais Vasco and can again count on the experience of team captain Christian Vande Velde.
Other names to watch for include Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who won two stages at Pais Vasco and the Katusha trio of 2009 winner Sergei Ivanov the ever aggressive Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquin Rodriguez. Alexandre Vinokourov leads the Astana team, with Damiano Cunego set to lead the troubled Lampre-ISD squad.
Giovanni Visconti's Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli team has been given a wild card invitation and the Italian national champion is perfectly
suited to the race route and the Cauberg finish. However he missed Brabantse Pijl due a cold and so may struggle on Sunday.
A better outsider could be Bjorn Leukemans or Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil. They were aggressive at Brabantse Pijl and the second major ProTeam from the Netherlands is desperate to win a classic and outperform rivals Rabobank.
We see if they can do it at the top of the Cauberg.