Phillippe Gilbert finally took a victory in a major spring classic, winning yesterdayâ€™s Amstel Gold Race with an impressive surge up the final ascent of the Cauberg. It was an exciting finish to a rather quiet race, as the favorites seemed content to wait until the final to begin testing their legs.
Hereâ€™s what I noticed:
1. Credit Gilbert for another aggressive performance in a major classic. Gilbert covered, attacked, chased, and still had something left at the end to take the win. Iâ€™ll admit I was a bit surprised to see him pull it offâ€”I feared he went on the attack too early, perhaps overestimating his fitness. And credit Jurgen Vandenbroeck with some fabulous teamwork in support of his captainâ€”without his efforts to bring back Sergei Ivanov between the Fromberg and Keutenberg, we might have had a different result. Now Gilbert heads into the Ardennes as a top favorite to take both Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a serious threat for the first â€œTriple Crownâ€ since Davide Rebellinâ€™s in 2004. And while weâ€™re at it, letâ€™s credit Gilbert for an excellent spring including top-10 results in Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and the Brabantse Pijl. If he continues his winning ways, he might just make Belgium forget about its lackluster cobbled campaign.
2. As for Ryder Hesjedal, he has to be the happiest rider ever to lose a race following his 2nd-place performance. Hesjedalâ€™s evolution from mountain biker to elite roadie is well-documented. Following an impressive ride in Pais Vasco, the Canadian seems primed for more success over the coming days. While the Muur de Huy might be a tough sprint for him to win, Liege-Bastogne-Liege might suit his talents a bit more. With Christian Vandevelde and Daniel Martin joining the team in Belgium, it looks to be a good week for Garmin.
3. I completely omitted Astana from my race preview Saturday, a terrible oversight considering Iâ€™ve been one of only a few to consistently herald the teamâ€™s recent performances. While hindsightâ€™s always 20/20, Iâ€™m not at all surprised by Enrico Gasparottoâ€™s 3rd-place finish considering his aggressive riding thus far. With Maxim Iglinsky, Andre Grivko, and Gasparoto, Astanaâ€™s future in the northern classics looks bright. And with Alberto Contador arriving in time for the Ardennes events, Astanaâ€™s successful spring looks certain to continue.
4. When Bert De Waele burst from the peloton midway up the Cauberg, I momentarily wondered if Belgiumâ€™s first major win of the season might come from the most unlikely of places. My hopes were immediately dashed, but chapeau to De Waele for his 4th-place finish. Itâ€™s been quite a year for Belgian Continental teams, as teams like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landbouwkrediet have more than proven they deserve invitations to bigger races.
5. As for Liquigas, Roman Kreuziger took 5th-place while Vincenzo Nibali came in 21st. The duo rode well yesterday, ultimately falling a bit short in the end. Clearly, Kreuzigerâ€™s the more aggressive of the two, while Nibali might be more suited to a role as a super-lieutenant. Fleche is a race well-suited Kreuzigerâ€™s talents, especially with Nibali covering attacks and perhaps driving the group into the bottom of the climb. All in all, with two more races and two incredibly gifted captains, thereâ€™s still hope for a big win at Liquigas.
6. I was pleased to see Damiano Cunegoâ€™s competitive performance yesterday. Clearly heâ€™s rid of the sickness that knocked him out of Pais Vasco, and ready to make a serious attempt at winning one of the Ardennes classics. His Lampre teammates rode cohesively to position him well for the finaleâ€”a good sign heading into Fleche and Liege. If Cunego continues to progress between now and Sunday, Italy could grab its first win of the classics.
7. Led by the Schleck brothers, Saxo Bank rode another aggressive raceâ€”even though they fell short in the end. Of the two, Andy clearly appears to be the stronger manâ€”he put in some attacks that could have been devastating had he been willing to see them through. When it was all said a dn done, Frank ended the day better than his younger brother, but I think Saxo Bankâ€™s â€œall about Andyâ€ at this point. With one more week in his legs, the champion of Luxembourg will be ready for a repeat at Liege. As for my pre-race pick, Jens Voigt failed to finishâ€”weâ€™re both looking to Fleche for some redemption.
8. As for Vacansoleil, Marco Mancatoâ€™s 8th-place finish was the best they could musterâ€”but not for lack of trying. Mancato and teammates Johnny Hoogerland and Bjorn Leukemans rode an aggressive and tactically sound race, doing what they could to force a selection before the race re-entered Valkenburg. Vacansoleil has inexplicably not been invited to the Ardennes, so Amstel was effectively the end of the teamâ€™s classics campaign. But with several high finishes in the major cobbled classics, I think the Dutch squad has enough reasons to consider the month a success. The first item on Vacansoleilâ€™s â€œTo Doâ€ list? Re-signing Bjorn Leukemans.
9. BMCâ€™s Karsten Kroon led the squad Sunday with a respectable, yet unspectacular 9th-place finish. World Champion Cadel Evans raced true to his word, closing gaps and reeling-in attacks to set-up his Dutch teammate for a possible home win. (Too bad he wasnâ€™t racing for Phillippe Gilbert this time.) Evans looks ready to tackle the races in the Ardennes, perhaps boosted by newfound confidence following his world title in Mendrisio. With Gilbert and Cunego arriving in terrific form as well, we might get a replay of last yearâ€™s fireworks.
10. Chris Horner carries the hopes for Team Radio Shack. His 10th place bodes well for the next 2 races, but itâ€™s hard to see Horner overcoming the likes of Gilbert, Cunego, and Valverde. Still, stranger things have happened and could againâ€”especially if Horner happens to find himself in a break with top favorites more eager to stare at one another than cover surprise attacks from a savvy veteran.
11. As for Rabobank, before the race, would you have thought the teamâ€™s first finisher would be Paul Martens? Would you have bet not one of the teamâ€™s riders would finish inside the top-10? Robert Gesink raced aggressively, but faded toward the end; while Oscar Freire did well to arrive at the bottom of the Cauberg fresh and in good position before succumbing to riders more suited to the Caubergâ€™s steeper pitches. In the end, it was a disappointing day for a team expected by many to be the strongest in the race. Look for Gesink to rebound at Fleche Wallone where distance wonâ€™t be a limiting factor.
12. Last but not least, give credit to Katushaâ€™s merry band of Russians for doing their best to take the race into their own hands. Sergei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev put in several attacks, hoping one would stick. Kolobnev came closestâ€”he had a decent gap heading into the final climb but fell victim to the surges of fresh chase group. Joaquin Rodriguez abandoned after being dropped in the last hour. If he can rebound in time for Wednesday, Katusha might have what it takes to avenge yesterdayâ€™s near-misses.
And what about you? Were you as bored as I was during the first hour or two of live coverage? Please share your comments and insights below.
Come back tomorrow for a preview of Wednesdayâ€™s Fleche Wallone. And if youâ€™re in the area, consider joining us at Sundayâ€™s Fools Classic, a terrific classic-inspired ride in scenic Bucks County. Pre-registrationâ€™s open for another few hours!
Have a great day!