Yes, this comes a bit late in the day (the soigneurs might even be stirring soon—or at least returning to their hotels after a night on the town), but there's still time to talk about tomorrow’s Amstel Gold Race.
A relatively “new” classic (this year is only the 44th), the Amstel Gold race used to be the final cherry on the Spring Classics sundae. However, following the recent calendar change, it now serves as the bridge between the cobbled and the Ardennes classics. Team trucks will drive east from Flanders and north from the Basque Country, exchanging bikes, equipment, and staff for the next phase of the season.
The unfortunate thing about Amstel is that it has a tough time living-up to the reputations of its peers. Riders coming off Flanders and Roubaix look at it as a sort of consolation prize. For example, Juan Antonio Flecha is likely hoping for a chance to make his fans forget about his untimely crash last Sunday. On the other hand, the Ardennes riders could be looking ahead to next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège . Would Valverde like to win Amstel? Sure he would. But at the cost of another Liège? Not necessarily. So tomorrow might be a day for an aggressive “I-want-to-win-everything-I-enter-with-little-or-no-thought-of-the-future” kind of rider. (Are your ears burning Damiano?) Or it could be a day for a rider to assume the spotlight that might not quite be accustomed to it. (I’m talking to you Rinaldo Nocentini.) Regardless, expect a large breakaway or a small peloton to have thinned itself out by the last 25km of this 258km berg-fest (there’s 31!). From then it’s anybody’s guess; the final sprint up the Cauberg is usually quite a sight.
This year’s preliminary start-list is filled with a bevy of interesting riders—should they all take the start. From the cobbles we have Sylvain Chavanel, Flecha, Nick Nuyens, Martijn Maaskant, Heinrich Haussler, and Philipe Gilbert. Of these, look for Flecha and/or Nuyens to be aggressive for the home crowd, but fade later in the race. Maaskant has a better team of supporters here than he did over the past two weeks, but I think he too will suffer as the day wears on. In fact, you might be better putting your Slipstream money on Canada’s Ryder Hejsedal (why don’t they start him in more cobbled classics?). I’d love to see Chavanel cap-off a perfect spring with a win here; in doing so he would cement his status as Lefevre’s newest Stefano Zanini. And Gilbert? As has been well-documented, he’ll simply need to make the break that matters. If he does, he could easily take the win and make a late bid to salvage his team’s spring.
As far as riders beginning their Ardennes peak we have Alejandro Valverde, Damiano Cunego, Robert Gesink, Davide Rebellin, Samuel Sanchez, and Fabian Wegman. Of these, I think Valverde’s biding his time, while Cunego’s in it to win it (at the cost of a win next Sunday). Rebellin’s a threat, but not quite his old self; Gesink’s too nervous and crash-happy for these roads. Sanchez is too isolated and in terrain that’s not quite his specialty. And Wegman? Well, frankly, I think he could win. Seriously. He’s out to prove that his explosion on the Muur de Huy last year was no fluke (except for the explosion part). Aside from Cunego, Wegman’s most serious threats lie in the form of Luxembourg’s fabulous Schleck brothers. Frank gets the edge for his propensity to attack a bit more, and he’s a past winner.
Outsiders? Kreuzinger and Nibali will be the Ardennes version of Quinziato and Kuschynski (although he’s on the line too). Rinaldo Nocentini probably won’t win, but he could sprint his way through a defeated group of the leaders to sneak onto the podium. Kim Kirchen’s here, but he’s been out for a while. Look more to his teammates Albasini and Pinotti—both won stages in Pais Vasco last week.
But my money’s on Wegman—anyone on a team racing in blue cow kit deserves some respect.
Who’s your pick to win? Let us know below.