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Fränky-boy, you're amazing! Birthday boy gets his joy

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Fränk Schleck (CSC)

Fränk Schleck (CSC) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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These three were the strongest today

These three were the strongest today (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Boogerd

Boogerd (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Bjarne Riis

Bjarne Riis (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé)
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Rain coats

Rain coats (Image credit: Sirotti)
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The early breakaway

The early breakaway (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Rabobank controlled the field

Rabobank controlled the field (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile)

Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Fränk Schleck's winning attack

Fränk Schleck's winning attack (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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The face of Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) shows the pain of a hilltop finish after 253 kilometres in the saddle. After winning the race in 2004, the Italian finished sixth today.

The face of Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) shows the pain of a hilltop finish after 253 kilometres in the saddle. After winning the race in 2004, the Italian finished sixth today. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Christophe Brandt (Davitamon-Lotto) finished in 38th place.

Christophe Brandt (Davitamon-Lotto) finished in 38th place. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Bram Tankink (Quickstep-Innergetic) ended up in 56th place.

Bram Tankink (Quickstep-Innergetic) ended up in 56th place. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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2006 Amstel winner Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) admires his trophy.

2006 Amstel winner Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) admires his trophy. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Jens Voigt (CSC ) congratulated his team-mate Fränk Schleck as soon as he crossed the line, 6'10 minutes after the Luxembourger claimed victory.

Jens Voigt (CSC ) congratulated his team-mate Fränk Schleck as soon as he crossed the line, 6'10 minutes after the Luxembourger claimed victory. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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The podium - (L to R) Stefen Wesemann (T-Mobile, 2nd), Fränk Schleck (CSC, 1st) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank, 3rd).

The podium - (L to R) Stefen Wesemann (T-Mobile, 2nd), Fränk Schleck (CSC, 1st) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank, 3rd). (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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A show of hands all round for Amstel winner Fränk Schleck.

A show of hands all round for Amstel winner Fränk Schleck. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Everybody wanted a piece of the Schleckster in Valkenburg.

Everybody wanted a piece of the Schleckster in Valkenburg. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Fränk Schleck embraced by his partner.

Fränk Schleck embraced by his partner. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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We're going to have a HUGE night tonight, babe!

We're going to have a HUGE night tonight, babe! (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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The man of the moment: Fränk Schleck.

The man of the moment: Fränk Schleck. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Fränk Schleck hugs his papa.

Fränk Schleck hugs his papa. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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The Eddy Merckx die-hard fan club. Members: 1

The Eddy Merckx die-hard fan club. Members: 1 (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Fränk Schleck goes about the winner's business of answering questions at the post-race press conference.

Fränk Schleck goes about the winner's business of answering questions at the post-race press conference. (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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"CSC is the best team in the world," said Schleck, "and we're not only team-mates, but we're great friends."

"CSC is the best team in the world," said Schleck, "and we're not only team-mates, but we're great friends." (Image credit: Anthony Tan/Cyclingnews.com)
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Rain coats are still needed at the first passage of the Cauberg

Rain coats are still needed at the first passage of the Cauberg (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Grey skies dominated the whole race

Grey skies dominated the whole race (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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These cobbles again...

These cobbles again... (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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There were many spectators, despite the rain

There were many spectators, despite the rain (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The typical windmill and the breakaway riders Moreau, Thijs, Albasini and Schmitz

The typical windmill and the breakaway riders Moreau, Thijs, Albasini and Schmitz (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The early breakaway

The early breakaway (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The bunch, not actually driving the pace yet

The bunch, not actually driving the pace yet (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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A bird's view

A bird's view (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)

Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Andrey Kashechkin (Liberty Seguros)

Andrey Kashechkin (Liberty Seguros) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Filippo Pozzato (Quick.Step)

Filippo Pozzato (Quick.Step) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The break is falling apart

The break is falling apart (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Moreau, not exactly having a good time

Moreau, not exactly having a good time (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Rabobank controlled the field with all its men

Rabobank controlled the field with all its men (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Full steam ahead

Full steam ahead (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The Rabo clan: Dekker, Freire, Boogerd, Dekker the younger

The Rabo clan: Dekker, Freire, Boogerd, Dekker the younger (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Watch it, buddy

Watch it, buddy (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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It was a hard race on everyone, not only Liquigas

It was a hard race on everyone, not only Liquigas (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas)

Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Olympic champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) closely watched by T-Mobile

Olympic champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) closely watched by T-Mobile (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Belgian champ Serge Baguet (Quick.Step) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre)

Belgian champ Serge Baguet (Quick.Step) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) rode a brilliant race today

Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) rode a brilliant race today (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Out of the way!

Out of the way! (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Igor Astarloa (Barloworld) concentrates

Igor Astarloa (Barloworld) concentrates (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) is hurting

Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) is hurting (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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What a race! Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) in the finish

What a race! Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) in the finish (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) in the finish

Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) in the finish (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), missed out again...

Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), missed out again... (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The chasers arrive: Kroon, Sinkewitz, Rebellin, Perdiguero

The chasers arrive: Kroon, Sinkewitz, Rebellin, Perdiguero (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Bettini gets into the finish, a little disappointed

Bettini gets into the finish, a little disappointed (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The winning way: Fränk Schleck (CSC) comes into the finish

The winning way: Fränk Schleck (CSC) comes into the finish (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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A beautiful solo victory

A beautiful solo victory (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Schleck (CSC) can't believe he's made it!

Schleck (CSC) can't believe he's made it! (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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A happy winner of the 41st Amstel Gold Race

A happy winner of the 41st Amstel Gold Race (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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True sportsmanship by Boogerd

True sportsmanship by Boogerd (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Schleck holds it up

Schleck holds it up (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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The podium: Schleck (1st), Wesemann (2nd), Boogerd (3rd)

The podium: Schleck (1st), Wesemann (2nd), Boogerd (3rd) (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Fränk Schleck (CSC) with the Trophy

Fränk Schleck (CSC) with the Trophy (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Congrats from Karsten Kroon

Congrats from Karsten Kroon (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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CSC has the spirit

CSC has the spirit (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Fränk Schleck (CSC) celebrates

Fränk Schleck (CSC) celebrates (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Dirty, but happy: Schleck can't believe it

Dirty, but happy: Schleck can't believe it (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Boogerd arrives in the finish

Boogerd arrives in the finish (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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The podium, with Boogerd showing his feelings

The podium, with Boogerd showing his feelings (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Alexandre Moos (Phonak) come into the finish

Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Alexandre Moos (Phonak) come into the finish (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Il Grillo crosses the line

Il Grillo crosses the line (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Boogerd has never been able to repeat his 1999 win

Boogerd has never been able to repeat his 1999 win (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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The crowd in front of the podium

The crowd in front of the podium (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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The nest group came in: Dekker, Flecha (Both Rabobank) and Jaksche (Liberty)

The nest group came in: Dekker, Flecha (Both Rabobank) and Jaksche (Liberty) (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Oscar Freire (Rabobank) probably had other plans today

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) probably had other plans today (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Ivanov (T-Mobile) rode a strong race - he must be disappointed

Ivanov (T-Mobile) rode a strong race - he must be disappointed (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Karsten Kroon (CSC) did a perfect teammate's job today

Karsten Kroon (CSC) did a perfect teammate's job today (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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These three were the strongest today

These three were the strongest today (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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The podium, with Schleck grinning from ear to ear

The podium, with Schleck grinning from ear to ear (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Big hug from Bjarne Riis and Fränk Schleck

Big hug from Bjarne Riis and Fränk Schleck (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Sanchez (Euskaltel) managed to hold on to the best riders in Amstel

Sanchez (Euskaltel) managed to hold on to the best riders in Amstel (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Here he comes!

Here he comes! (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Schleck savours the win

Schleck savours the win (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Yess!!

Yess!! (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Jens Voigt congratulates his teammate

Jens Voigt congratulates his teammate (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Wesemann almost made it come true for T-Mobile today

Wesemann almost made it come true for T-Mobile today (Image credit: Elmar Krings)
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Green Dutch countryside

Green Dutch countryside (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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300 m to go

300 m to go (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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The weather wasn't too nice today

The weather wasn't too nice today (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Fränk Schleck's winning attack

Fränk Schleck's winning attack (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Boogerd tries to hold on

Boogerd tries to hold on (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Fist in air, Schleck cries out his victory

Fist in air, Schleck cries out his victory (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Steffen Wesemann finished second on the Cauberg

Steffen Wesemann finished second on the Cauberg (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Karsten Kroon (CSC) receives a kiss from his partner

Karsten Kroon (CSC) receives a kiss from his partner (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Karsten Kroon (CSC) was very happy with his performance

Karsten Kroon (CSC) was very happy with his performance (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Karsten Kroon (CSC) talking to Dutch television

Karsten Kroon (CSC) talking to Dutch television (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Cap off for his team's performace - Bjarne Riis

Cap off for his team's performace - Bjarne Riis (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Another T-Mobile rider in the top five, Patrik Sinkewitz

Another T-Mobile rider in the top five, Patrik Sinkewitz (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Belgian Björn Leukemans wasn't happy with his result

Belgian Björn Leukemans wasn't happy with his result (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Jens Voigt (CSC) was happy with the team's performance

Jens Voigt (CSC) was happy with the team's performance (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Erwin Thijs (Unibet) looking at what he pulled off today

Erwin Thijs (Unibet) looking at what he pulled off today (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Erwin Thijs can look back to a good performance

Erwin Thijs can look back to a good performance (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) at the press conference

Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) at the press conference (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Frank Schleck (CSC) bored, or thinking back about his performance?

Frank Schleck (CSC) bored, or thinking back about his performance? (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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Frank Schleck talking to the press after the race

Frank Schleck talking to the press after the race (Image credit: Brecht Decaluwé/Cyclingnews.com)
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The four leaders on top of the Epenerbaan-climb with 127km to go

The four leaders on top of the Epenerbaan-climb with 127km to go (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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The peloton was still more than eight minutes behind at Epenerbaan

The peloton was still more than eight minutes behind at Epenerbaan (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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After climbing the Hulsberg there were only three riders left at the top

After climbing the Hulsberg there were only three riders left at the top (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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With less than 100km to go in Huls some riders seemed to be still relaxed

With less than 100km to go in Huls some riders seemed to be still relaxed (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Geez, that's tough! Riders fight for air in the wet, humid conditions

Geez, that's tough! Riders fight for air in the wet, humid conditions (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Some riders fighting hard not to lose contact in Huls

Some riders fighting hard not to lose contact in Huls (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) with one of his attacks at the Gulperberg at less than 30km to go

Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) with one of his attacks at the Gulperberg at less than 30km to go (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Steffen Wesenmann giving all he's got to give on the climb

Steffen Wesenmann giving all he's got to give on the climb (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Team Gerolsteiner following their German rival

Team Gerolsteiner following their German rival (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner) leading his teammate Davide Rebellin

Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner) leading his teammate Davide Rebellin (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Franck Schleck (CSC) was attentive at the Gulperberg

Franck Schleck (CSC) was attentive at the Gulperberg (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Marten den Bakker (Milram) showing exactly what he thinks about the climb

Marten den Bakker (Milram) showing exactly what he thinks about the climb (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Suffering behind the peloton

Suffering behind the peloton (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Just a few metres to go to the top

Just a few metres to go to the top (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Go faster, Frank! Schleck gets a last shout with 100 meters to go

Go faster, Frank! Schleck gets a last shout with 100 meters to go (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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After four kilometres the group of the day was already gone

After four kilometres the group of the day was already gone (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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The peloton not enjoying the weather

The peloton not enjoying the weather (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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In Sibbe there was a faithful copy of Eddy Merckx, waiting for the race to pass

In Sibbe there was a faithful copy of Eddy Merckx, waiting for the race to pass (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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The peloton passes the Merckx lookalike - now that's living art!

The peloton passes the Merckx lookalike - now that's living art! (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Racing was no fun once again today

Racing was no fun once again today (Image credit: Mani Wollner)
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Steffen Wesemann on his way to finishing second

Steffen Wesemann on his way to finishing second (Image credit: Mani Wollner)

41st Amstel Gold Race - PT

Netherlands, April 16, 2006

ProTour standings

Schleck triumphs in aggressive-as-hell Amstel

Less than 24 hours after celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday, Fränk Schleck crossed the finish line alone at the top of the Cauberg to reward himself with his biggest career victory and the best present ever. Since his race-defining attack on the Poggio in Milano-Sanremo one month ago, many knew the day the lanky Luxembourger would come of age was not too far away - and that came today.

"There was never time to think about [winning]," said a shocked, esctatic Schleck. "Obviously, I wasn't a big favourite and I thought the chasers would catch me. Arriving at the finish line, I couldn't believe that I would actually win the race. This is all like a dream to me because I've been chasing a big victory for over seven years now.

"We had two leaders in the team, me and Karsten Kroon, who's riding really strong and knows this course like [the inside of] his pocket, so he was [also] really motivated for this," he explained to Cyclingnews. "Both of us were in the front at the final and I decided to attack and take my chance. And hey, it went good!"

"He was strong, and waited for this day," said his smiling partner. "It was his birthday yesterday, so it was the best present he could have."

Steffen Wesemann was probably the strongest in the race today but maybe not the smartest, and had to settle for second in the end. "Knowing that I was alone in the lead for such a long time makes it easier to be happy with that second place; I really felt that I was the strongest man in the race. Despite the team didn't get the win at the end, I'm happy with my performance," Wesemann said.

The Swiss-based German attacked with some 40km to go, which at first appeared to be a bit of a 'mission impossible', but the T-Mobile rider said he wanted to do something to break the chain of the Rabobank team: "It looked impossible, but they [Rabobank] had to use some [of their] riders in the pursuit and then the race was on for everyone. Why not attack, because you never know how it's going to end up?" he said. "My form is alright, so I'll give my very best in Liège," added Wesemann.

Third-placed Michael Boogerd added yet another podium spot in Holland's most important race, and answered critics' questions on their choice of tactics by saying: "The others teams just don't take their responsibility - we can't allow the early break an advantage of 15 minutes, because then you're in major trouble. If you think you have a possible winner in your team, you should take your responsibility and offer maybe one man in the chasing group.

"Ah, there will always be some criticism if you don't win," said a Boogerd with a wry grin. "It is true, I didn't study at university, but I'm not stupid. I'm not Eddy Merckx, so I couldn't react to every attack. If you look around and you see three T-Mobile riders and Paolo Bettini, then I know I'd better spare some energy; if I had've chased Schleck and lost in the sprint against Bettini, the crowd would probably dunked me in tar and feathers. I hoped the others would come back and maybe Freire still had a good sprint in his legs. My gamble was that T-Mobile would chase Schleck back - they didn't."

Boogerd also added his strength on the climbs will hopefully pay dividends in next weekend's Liège-Bastogne-Liège: "I hope to be just as good as today. Every year is different; sometimes I'm better in Liège, the other years I'm stronger in Valkenburg. I'll try to recover from this race now with a long training ride on Wednesday.

"My main goal will be to make the difference uphill, making it possible to ride without headaches concerning team tactics. The main advantage in Liège is that the race is less nervous. It's also good for me to see that Paolo Bettini is riding well. He's always in for an attack, trying to shape the race," said 'Boogie'. "We can also play the card of Thomas Dekker; if he gets in an early break, that could result in having an extra team-mate in the finale."

After Team CSC's emotion-charged victory last Sunday with Fabian Cancellara winning Paris-Roubaix and becoming only the second Swiss to do so, Schleck also created a piece of history, being the first rider from Luxembourg to win the Amstel Gold and just the second to win one of cycling's big classics after Marcel Ernzer's win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège 62 years ago, in 1954.

"I have to say I didn't know it before yesterday till a journalist told me, so I was lucky that I knew it [today]," he smiled. "Yeah, it's great to be the second Luxembourger... it's just amazing."

CSC's team manager Bjarne Riis must take some of the praise for this triumph, who, like Schleck as a rider, has proven himself to be one of the most versatile directeurs sportifs in cycling today, able to choose a team with riders that complement each other, create a unique harmony, and formulate a winning strategy from Classics to Grand Tours.

"He never goes into the race and just sits there and we do nothing; no, Bjarne thinks a lot about the race and what to do," said the rider from Mondorf-les-Bains in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. "The plan was for Karsten [Kroon] and me to save as much energy as possible till the final and yeah, it worked out. The plan was to attack in the final - well, the plan was much, much more [than that] - but I won't go into details," he grinned.

"CSC is the best team in the world," continued Schleck, "and we're not only team-mates, but we're great friends. We're really close to each other; you don't see it so often that riders call each other during the week and just ask, 'how it's going?' I think that makes it the best team in the world, because we're very good friends and we work together as a team."

Little change to ProTour leaderboard

Only five of the top ten riders on the individual ProTour rankings competed in today's Amstel Gold Race - namely Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Antonio Colom Mas (Caisse D'epargne-Illes Balears), Filippo Pozzato (Quick Step-Innergetic), Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) - with the best-placed being Ballan in 11th place, who earns no points. Consequently, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step-Innergetic) maintains his position at the top of the leaderboard on 129 points, 24 clear of Ballan and 45 ahead Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), with fourth to sixth places also unchanged. However, Schleck catapulted himself from 27th to 6th as a result of today's win, moving the previous sixth to tenth placings down one rung.

How it unfolded

With most of the previous Spring Classics held in mostly dry conditions, pundits were wondering when bad weather was going to greet the ProTour peloton. Well, on this Easter Sunday morning in Limburg, it came...

15 minutes before the start of the 41st Amstel Gold in Maastricht's Grote Markt, toeschouwers met paraplus (spectators with umbrellas) were many but riders were few, taking last minute shelter in their team buses before the official kick-off at 10:15. Then all of a sudden, the favourites came rushing out, but the lycra-led traffic jam saw a handful of names miss the sign-on altogether, among them Aart Vierhouten from Skil-Shimano and Saunier Duval-Prodir's Manuele Mori.

However, the circumstances saw them unpenalised and the peloton gingerly made its way north, hugging the banks of the River Maas, direction Stein. After no more than 20 kilometres, AG2R Prévoyance's Christophe Moreau decided one way to keep warm in the dreary weather was to attack, going off the front shortly after the Maasberg, the first of 31 climbs to be tackled today.

This popular veteran Frenchman soon had four for company as Erwin Thijs (Unibet.com), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile) and René Weissinger (Skil-Shimano) hooked up for the ride; once together, the quintet was motoring, soon establishing a six minute lead on the peloton after 35 kilometres. Some 12 kilometres before the top of the Cauberg that was to be tackled thrice today, Weissinger punctured, and some overly enthusiastic pacing from his team car saw the German DQ'd by race officials. Nevertheless, the quartet pressed on unphased, and the Cauberg's crest (km 61.6), their advantage was 11 minutes.

The onus was on pre-race favourites Rabobank to take up the chase, which they duly did by sending a few good men to the front: Bram de Groot, Erik Dekker and Joost Posthuma. At half past twelve and 86 kilometres completed, the gap was 10'50, but 20 minutes later, the situation had stabilised, the four leaders now eight minutes and forty seconds in front.

After a brief trip to the German border and with the second and final visit to Eperheide (km 134.5) behind them, the seemingly infinite series of climbs continued. With 14 out of the way and another 17 still to go, the Amstel Gold Race began to take on its customary face as a slow but sure natural selection dictated the race.

Number 15 of 31 was the climb of Gulperberg and although not particularly severe in gradient or length, it was enough for our early protagonist Christophe Moreau to call it a day, the lactic in his legs leaving just three: Erwin Thijs (Unibet.com), Michael Albasini (Liquigas) and Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile). The three leaders were beginning to look a little worse for wear themselves with 100 kilometres still remaining, and as a seven-strong orange train pressed on at the head of the peloton, the trio were undoubtedly facing a slow but certain death.

The second ascent of the Cauberg saw Schmitz in difficulty, but the big man hung tough over the top (km 170, 80.7 km to go). Back in the 100+ peloton, it appeared everyone bar Rabo were enjoying a free ride with few in difficulty - Thomas Dekker even had time (and energy) to wave to the crowd! Moreau also took the opportunity to head for the showers and an Amstel pils.

Around ten past three in the afternoon, the rain had stopped, the roads had dried but still no sign of sun; if anything, the air temperature had dropped a few degrees and as the breeze continued to blow, it was chilly single digit territory. At this point, the peloton was now three minutes behind and closing. With 60 kilometres to go and nine climbs left, the battle for position began in the peloton, as the Rabobank domestiques pressed the pace as hard as they could on the following series of ascents. On the Bemelerberg, Schmitz was again in trouble and this time for good, as Thijs and Albasini gained a half-minute lead after their descent.

Less than two minutes later, it was the peloton's turn to tackle the aforementioned ascent, and news of Schmitz's departure from the break saw T-Mobile troops move to the front, followed by a predictable attack by the team's veteran of 13 years, Steffen Wesemann. The move was marked by around a dozen others including Matthias Kessler, Eddy Mazzoleni (T-Mobile), Juan Antonio Flecha, Erik Dekker (Rabobank), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) and Filippo Pozzato (Quick.Step), but the despite the class up front, the peloton wasn't ready to give in, regrouping shortly thereafter.

Though it didn't last long: counter-attacks then came from Nicki Sørensen (CSC), Johan Vansummeren (Davitamon-Lotto), Maarten Den Bakker (Milram) and Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step), the latter notably bridging solo very quickly indeed. Tacking on to the various counters were Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Vladimir Gusev and Benoit Joachim (Discovery), Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Eddy Mazzoleni, Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Serge Baguet (Quick.Step), Koos Moerenhout (Phonak) and Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) - but no-one from Rabobank, and an organised orange chase and a disorganised break returned the situation to status quo with 40 clicks to go.

It was again a Wesemann attack on the 25th climb of the Loorberg, taking with him 2003 world champion Igor Astarloa (Barloworld) and Cofidis' Leonardo Bertagnolli. Impressively, the German soon dropped his two companions, forging ahead on his own and taking the T-Mobile offensive head to head with the likes of Rabobank, Quick.Step and Team CSC, arguably the three strongest teams in the race.

Shoving some food down his gob shortly before powering over the fifth-to-last climb of the Kruisberg with 21.3 kilometres remaining, 'Wese's' advantage was precariously hovering at roughly 15 seconds, but by the top had moved to 30, pursued by a peloton led by the Milram duo of Maarten Den Bakker and Andriy Grivko. And as they rode up the Kruisberg, CSC rider Karsten Kroon's attacked, followed by Sergei Ivanov (T-Mobile) and then Bettini broke the peloton to pieces, leading to a 10-man chase group with Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Frank Schleck (CSC), Koos Moerenhout (Phonak), Bjorn Leukemans (Davitamon-Lotto), Fabian Wegmann and Davide Rebellin (both Gerolsteiner) and Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile) also in there.

On the third-last climb of the Fromberg and with less than 16 kilometres remaining, Bettini exploded out of this bunch like a bat out of hell, bridging to Wesemann just after the top of the climb (km 239.2, 13.9 km to go). Behind them, Wegmann, Ivanov and Schleck were chasing hard 10 seconds in arrears, and with Wesemann not working as a result of having Ivanov in the chase group, the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg led to an eventual regrouping. With 10 kilometres left to race, the following riders all stood a chance of victory: Wesemann, Ivanov, Sinkewitz (all T-Mobile), Bettini (Quick.Step), Kroon and Schleck (CSC), Boogerd (Rabobank), Perdiguero (Phonak), Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Rebellin (Gerolsteiner).

Not more than a kilometre later, Schleck attacked in a massive gear, immediately opening a gap to the rest of the leaders. Perdiguero attempted to get the guys going, and so did T-Mobile, but the lack of cohesion aided the Luxembourger's chances, who was holding a 15 second gap at Sibbe with 5k to go. By the foot of the Cauberg, Schleck earned himself five seconds more that proved more than enough to earn his most emotional and by far his finest-ever career victory, while an indefatigable Wesemann led a fruitless, last-minute chase, before attacking once more to take second place ahead of Boogerd, conceding defeat by throwing his hands up in the air as he crossed the line.

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