Saturday, April 17, 2010

Amstel Gold Race Preview

This preview is admittedly very late in coming to you—for that, I apologize. On the other hand, the unexpected delay might just have worked in my favor as it’s allowed me to take into account the effects of the Northern European airport closures due to the Icelandic volcanic eruption.

The Amstel Gold Race can be a tough race to predict. Stuck between the cobbled and the Ardennes classics, Amstel often attracts both riders hoping to make amends for missed opportunities in Flanders and Roubaix and men peaking for the following week’s Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. And then of course there are those (mostly Dutch) teams hoping to win Amstel for it’s own merits—and to please home sponsors and fans. With such a diverse group of riders, teams, and talents, I think a team-by-team approach to an Amstel Gold Race Preview is more appropriate and efficient. Let’s take a look:

5-Stone Favorites
The Amstel Gold Race is Rabobank’s Super Bowl, World Cup Final, Master’s Championship—whatever important sporting analogy you want to make. It’s also a race they haven’t won since Erik Dekker took the title in 2001—incidentally, that was also the last time a Dutchman won the event. Rabobank comes to this year’s event with what it without a doubt, the deepest and most talented roster. Oscar Freire and Robert Gesink are the team’s designated leaders, but look for Nick Nuyens to play a role as well following a brief respite last weekend. As for Lars Boom, I wouldn’t expect too much. An intense spring schedule seems to be taking its toll on the young Dutchman who admitted after last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix that the extra distance of the classics seems to be a bit much right now. As for the race itself, look for Rabobank to attack early, possibly with Sebastian Langeveld, thus easing the pressure on the team to chase. Robert Gesink animated the finale last year—look for much of the same this year as Gesink’s form seems to be cresting at just the right time. And should those attacks prove fruitless, there’s Oscar Freire waiting in the wings, a powerful sprinter able to handle the distance and parcours. Overall, it’s Rabo’s race to lose.

If Rabobank does lose the race, the defeat might come at the hand of last year’s winning team, Katusha. Sergei Ivanov won last year following cunning ride, exploiting the youthful aggression of men like Roman Kreuziger and Robert Gesink to take the biggest win of his long career. This year, Katusha comes to Maastricht with heavier expectations, bolstered by the additions of Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquin Rodriguez, two men with proven track records in Amstel and the Ardennes. And don’t forget Filippo Pozzato, a man looking for some consolation following a regretful spring. Last weekend’s top-10 ride at Roubaix could prove to be just the boost Pippo needs to take the classic win we all expected—albeit 1 or 2 weeks later. In the end, the team’s best chance might just be Kolobnev, a rider whose steady progression through the ranks brings him to the race rightfully expecting a win. Could he become Katusha’s second-consecutive Russian victor?

4-Stone Favorites
Omega Pharma-Lotto is the only team in the Pro Tour not to have won a race this season—a mark that surpasses even last year’s fruitless start to the season. Phillippe Gilbert looks to change that between now and next Sunday though, hoping he has reclaimed the terrific form he displayed last autumn from Paris-Tours through the Tour of Lombardy. He’s supported by a talented, but somewhat untested team—if they all ride to their potential they could fare quite well. Regardless, Gilbert is enough to make this team a contender if for no other reason than he’s maybe the strongest rider in the race. The question remains how aggressively Gilbert will race—will he go for it all in Amstel, or perhaps save a bit extra for Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Given his team’s winless record, it’s hard to believe he’ll leave anything in reserve.

Vacansoleil’s performed surprisingly well this spring, particularly when compared to teams with bigger budgets. With a talented and in-form group of riders taking the line tomorrow, Vacansoleil just might end its classics campaign on top. The only regret Vacansoleil has about Bjorn Leukemans right now is that he’s Belgian and not Dutch. With top-10 rides in most of the cobbled classics—including Flanders and Roubaix—Leukemans seems poised to be a major protagonist Sunday. In Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, he made the elite chase group including Phillippe Gilbert and Thomas Voeckler, indicating that he hasn’t lost a step following his aggressive ride in Roubaix the Sunday before. With Johnny Hoogerland and Marco Mancato—two dark horse candidates to take the win themselves—Vacansoleil has three men able to make the important selections late into the race.

Liquigas heads to Amstel led by Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali. Kreuziger has grown more and more animated in one-day races, beginning with an aggressive performance at last year’s Amstel. With another year of experience under his belt, he seems poised to take what would be his first major win in a single-day event. As for Nibali, it’s hard to forget his inspired ride in the finale of last month’s Milan-San Remo. With a month of training since then, Nibali could show the world that he’s more than a Tour de France contender—giving Italy something to cheer for in the process. With a team including Manuel Quinziato, Liquigas might just have what it takes to claim the podium’s top step.

3-Stone Favorites
It’s a shame Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara decided against racing Sunday, for he might just have taken what would have been an unprecedented 3rd straight major classic—not that he can be blamed following his wins in the E3 Prijs, Flanders, and Roubaix. Without Spartacus, Saxo Bank will rely on Andy and Frank Schleck to continue the team’s impressive win streak. Frank won this race in 2006, while Andy won last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege; clearly both men know how to peak for this week’s events. With Jakob Fulsgang, Nicki Sorensen, and Jens Voigt keeping things under control, the Schleck’s should have a comfortable ride to the point when things become competitive. And don’t forget Voigt—he’s just the type of rider to pull an upset in a race like Amstel—as evidenced by Ivanov’s win last year.

BMC has to be a bit disappointed following the cobbled classics where it’s much heralded trio of cobblers fell short of success. Since Roubaix, George Hincapie’s gone home and Alessandro Ballan continues to wait for word following his “suspension” pending some information from the Mantova drug investigation. Marcus Burghardt is the last main piece of BMC’s cobbled contingent; he takes the line tomorrow hoping for a bit of redemption. That said, BMC’s real chance for a win comes from last year’s 2nd-place rider, Karsten Kroon. Kroon’s been stuck in the shadow of more popular riders for years, but he should not be overlooked tomorrow, especially since Cadel Evans pledged his support to his Dutch teammate—at least for this week.

2-Stone Favorites
Radio Shack’s Sebastien Rosseler took Belgium’s first classics win of the year in Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, but despite the victory he’s not riding Amstel. Instead, The Shack’s looking to recent Pais Vasco winner Chris Horner to continue his winning form. Horner seems to have kicked the crash demons of last season; the veteran could surprise the heavy favorites if his team can keep him out of trouble in what is often a nervous and hectic race.

Lampre’s Damiano Cunego went home from Pais Vasco with a some form of a stomach flu, ironically just as the s*** was beginning to hit the fan (no pun intended) in Mantova. He’s listed as starting Sunday’s race where he’s hoping to add another title to the one he earned in 2008. I have little reason to believe he’s up to the challenge this year—especially given the depth of the competition—but Cunego’s still not someone to be ignored.

Team Sky’s focus now turns to the Ardennes, where Australian Simon Gerrans looks to build upon his top results from last season. With the support of a talented, yet underrated team (that might include Bradley Wiggins—the reports are conflicting), he just might take the next step, adding a classic to his stage wins from all three grand tours.

1-Stone Favorites
HTC-Columbia brings only 6 riders due to the race following Mother Nature’s collaboration with the Norse gods. But Michael Albasini, Tony Martin, Maxime Monfort, Marco Pinotti, and the Velits borthers are 6 riders any team would love to have. With little pressure and nothing to lose, HTC just might surprise you.

Garmin-Transitions brings a young squad to tomorrow’s Dutch classic. Ryder Hesjedal impressed many with a fine performance in Pais Vasco, while Michael Kreder’s been riding like anything but a neo-pro. While a win might be a bit out of reach given the tough competition, look for Hesjedal in the top-10 and Kreder in the top-15—if the extra distance doesn’t take it’s toll.

As for my official prediction, while I’d to see Phillippe Gilbert take what would be his first major spring classic, something tells me we’re in for a bit of surprise tomorrow. The flight cancellations have undoubtedly thrown several riders—especially those expecting to fly-in—off their typical pre-race routines. The race will be exciting and aggressive, perfect for a man like Jens Voigt. Look for Saxo Bank to continue it’s win streak!

Wherever you are, enjoy tomorrow’s race—and all apologies for the late posting. If the gods smile upon me, I’ll be Twittering away once live coverage begins. You can sign-up to follow me here.

Enjoy your evening and share your picks and comments below.

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