Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race will open the Ardennes Classics for another season.
The 256.5km race from Maastricht to Cauberg Valkenburg through the Limburg region of the Netherlands is peppered with short, testing climbs, including the finishing 1200 metre, six per cent Cauberg, a ramp that almost defines the term ‘selective’, and which will be tackled three times on Sunday.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) won the race last year to begin a superb week that saw him take La Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and win all three Ardennes Classics.
The Wallonian would love to return to his best for Sunday (15) and take a third consecutive victory at the Amstel Gold Race, and showed flickers of returning form at Brabantse Pijl yesterday.
“I didn’t have super legs because I had four days of good training and only two days of recovery,” he said after the race. “That was not enough. But I think I’ll be OK for Sunday with three days more of recovery.”
Fellow team leader, Cadel Evans, may carry the team’s hopes. His climbing prowess is beyond question, and victories at the 2009 world road race championships and the 2010 La Flèche Wallonne proved his ability in one day races. Greg Van Avermaet has registered top five finishes at the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche this year.
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) has been ruled out Sunday’s race with a foot injury. “I’m sad because I wanted to ride the Amstel in support of my team-mates after the great support the team gave me during these three weeks. But the season is still very long and after talking with the team we have mutually decided to not take risks for the upcoming races,” he said.
But the Flandrian’s absence may not be as significant as his recent form suggests. Boonen has never won an Ardennes Classic. His team will be strongly represented by Sylvain Chavenel, winner at the Three Days of De Panne, second at the Tour of Flanders, and top 30 last week at Paris-Roubaix after another distinguished ride. Niki Terpstra rode strongly in support of Boonen over the Roubaix cobbles, adding a fifth place finish to the sixth scored at the Ronde, and his victory at Dwars Doors Vlaanderen.
The Schleck brothers will spearhead the challenge of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. Andy Shcleck’s fall at Brabanste Pijl and subsequent hand injury is not expected to rule him out of the Amstel Gold Race. Both brothers have had a quiet start to the season, but directeur sportif, Dirk Demol, is confident of Andy Shleck’s form for the Amstel Gold after his bitter Pijl.
“I do think Andy has good legs. When he would come up to the car to see me, I could tell that he had good legs so without the crash taking him out I think he was ready for today,” he said. The Luxembourger launched a dramatic solo bid for victory last year, only to be hauled back on the Cauberg. Chris Horner finished second overall at this year’s Tirenno-Adriaticoand was top 10 at all three Ardennes Classics in 2010, so should provide strong support.
Team Sky could ride in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen, a rider with the sprint and strength to triumph on the Cauberg. Freed from sharing the team’s resources with his marquee team-mates, the Norweigian may be given the chance to shine. Matthew Hayman is capable of providing strong support, and both Lars-Petter Nordhaug and Sergio Henao rode strongly at the Tour of the Basque Country.
For Liquigas-Cannondale, Vincenzo Niabli is enjoying a strong season with stage and overall victories at Tirenno-Adriatico and third at Milan-San Remo, while Peter Sagan, a stage winner at Tirenno and top five finisher at the Ronde and Gent Wevelgem, has shown good form, while a fall at Brabantse Pijl has not left him injured. Nibali will ride all three Ardennes Classics, while Sagan must stake his campaign on the Amstel Gold Race.
“Everyone is envious of a pair like this,” said a confident Alberto Volpi, the Italian team’s directeur sportif, “and clearly we’ll organise our race strategy so we can protect them and ensure they get to the end in the best possible condition. They’ve both got the right characteristics for a nervy race like the Amstel, plus their level of fitness is great. They’ll obviously be racing together but the way the race develops will decide who has the best chance: Sagan can exploit his explosive power, and Nibali can capitalise on his strength in attack. We’ll have a clear-cut strategy for controlling the more intense phases of the race, which is designed to ensure we bring home a victory for the team.”
Garmin-Barracuda have a strong team capable of producing victory with Johan Vansummeren, winner of last year’s Paris-Roubaix and tenth last Sunday, Ireland’s Dan Martin, fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya, and Omloop Het Niewsblad semi-classic winner Sep Vanmaercke, who recorded top 10 finishes at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke.
Other contenders will include Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE), whose victories this year at the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo showed his strength on short steep climbs, and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, to whom Gerrans narrowly lost out at the summit of Adelaide’s Old Willunga Hill. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) produced some fine performances to snatch victory from Rodriguez by winning the final two stages of the Tour of the Basque Country. Thomas Voeckler’s win at Brabantse Pijl for Europcar, a wildcard entry for the Amstel Gold Race, showed the gutsy Frenchmen will enter Ardennes week in good form, while an aggressive ride from Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) who finished seventh, showed his intentions. Katusha’s pairing of Joaquin Rodriguez, second at last week’s Tour of the Basque Country, and second in last year’s Amstel Gold Race and La Fleche Wallonne, and three-time world champion, Oscar Freire, second at Brabanste Pijl, are also both capable of victory.