Sundayâ€™s Amstel Gold Race officially opens the final week of the Spring Classics with 260 kilometers and 32 smooth, but absurdly steep climbs. The perfect transition from the cobbles to the Ardennes, Amstel offers a last chance for those who missed-out in Flanders and Roubaix, and a first opportunity for those who spent the last two weeks honing their climbing form in France and Spain.
Hereâ€™s a six-pack of favorites for Sundayâ€™s race, along with a few other riders to watch:
1. Philippe Gilbert returns to the Amstel Gold Race well-prepared to defend his title from 2010. His win in Wednesdayâ€™s Brabantse Pijl leaves little room for guessingâ€”the Belgianâ€™s at the top of his game. Better still, Gilbert is supported here with a better roster than he had in Flanders including Jurgen Van den Broeck and Jan Bakelants. With and uphill acceleration few can match and a more than capable finishing sprint, Sunday is his race to lose.
2. Rabobankâ€™s Robert Gesink has clearly entered 2011 on a mission to prove that heâ€™s one of the five or ten best riders in the world. The Dutchmanâ€™s enjoyed a terrific start to the season with a win in the Tour of Oman and podium places in Tirreno and last weekâ€™s Vuelta al Pais Vascoâ€”heâ€™s clearly primed for a important classic win. And with Carlos Barredo, Luis Leon Sanchez, and Oscar Freire taking the line for Rabobank as well, other teams canâ€™t afford to mark Gesink exclusively.
3. Leopard Trekâ€™s Frank Schleck won the Amstel Gold Race in 2006, attacking ten kilometers from the line to take his first important victory. Schleckâ€™s in top form this yearâ€”he won the Criterium International and rode at the front during Pais Vasco. And should Frank fail to shine Sunday, Leopard Trek has his younger brother Andy and Swiss star Fabian Cancellara at the ready. Cancellaraâ€™s an especially intriguing candidateâ€”Sunday could be our first chance to see if Spartacus will truly contend for an Ardennes win in future years.
4. Ryder Hesjedal finished second in the Amstel Gold Race last year, a result that heralded the arrival of what was to be a breakout season for the Canadian. Hesjedalâ€™s enjoyed a pain-free build-up to this yearâ€™s Ardennes Classics, finishing ninth in Pais Vasco and seventh in the Criterium International. An aggressive rider who might still be a bit underrated considering his track record of late, the North American with a Dutch last name certainly has the skillsâ€”and teamâ€”necessary to take the biggest win of his career.
5. Lampreâ€™s Damiano Cunego dropped-out of Pais Vasco but then won Sundayâ€™s Giro dellâ€™Appenninoâ€”an interesting turn of events for a rider many thought was on the verge of a renaissance after an auspicious start to the season. The Little Prince won Amstel in 2008â€”the only Spring Classic on his resume. After being shut-outâ€”againâ€”in the cobbled classics, the tifosi are clamoring for a win in one of the next three races. Should Cunego and his compatriots stumble, it will be the nationâ€™s second consecutive year without a major spring victory.
6. Euskaltelâ€™s Samuel Sanchez won the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain two weeks agoâ€”his only victory thus far this season. That said, despite the lack of important wins, Sanchez is still one of the top-ranked riders in the world thanks to impressive finishes in Paris-Nice and Pais Vasco. A rider with a reputation for being more of bridesmaid than a bride, this week will be Sanchezâ€™s latest opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
Aside from this six-pack of favorites, several outsiders look ready to spoil the party. Among them, Ronde heroes Nick Nuyens and Sylvain Chavanel come to mind, as does Vacansoleilâ€™s trio of Bjorn Leukemans, Stijn Devolder, and Thomas de Gendt. BMCâ€™s Greg Van Avermaet and Liquigasâ€™ Peter Sagan deserve attention, as do Katushaâ€™s Danilo Di Luca, Alexandre Kolobnev, and Joaquin Rodriguez.
And last but not least, one can never ignore Astanaâ€™s Alexandre Vinokourovâ€”the veteranâ€™s always a good bet for a win in the hillier classics.
As for my prediction, Gilbert will do his best to repeat his victory, but I see him burning a few too many matches in the final 20 kilometers. Nick Nuyens has shown over the past few weeks that he knows how to survive a hard race and time his move perfectly. And then thereâ€™s Ryder Hesjedal. He should be able to follow wheels most of the race, letting the other more-favored teams do the bulk of the work. Heâ€™ll time his sprint perfectly, but in the end it wonâ€™t be enough to defeat the Belgian Ronde-winner. Stijn Devolder will do just enough to guarantee himself a spot on the podiumâ€”after a race spent yo-yoing between the back and the front.
Amstel Gold Race: 1. Nuyens; 2. Hesjedal; 3. Devolder.
What about you? Whoâ€™s your best to take the youngest Spring Classic?
Share your comments and picks below.