Sunday’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.
Here’s a six-pack of favorites for Sunday’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 Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl leaves little room for guessing—the Belgian’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. Rabobank’s Robert Gesink has clearly entered 2011 on a mission to prove that he’s one of the five or ten best riders in the world. The Dutchman’s enjoyed a terrific start to the season with a win in the Tour of Oman and podium places in Tirreno and last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco—he’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 can’t afford to mark Gesink exclusively.
3. Leopard Trek’s Frank Schleck won the Amstel Gold Race in 2006, attacking ten kilometers from the line to take his first important victory. Schleck’s in top form this year—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. Cancellara’s an especially intriguing candidate—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. Hesjedal’s enjoyed a pain-free build-up to this year’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 skills—and team—necessary to take the biggest win of his career.
5. Lampre’s Damiano Cunego dropped-out of Pais Vasco but then won Sunday’s Giro dell’Appennino—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 2008—the only Spring Classic on his resume. After being shut-out—again—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 nation’s second consecutive year without a major spring victory.
6. Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez won the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain two weeks ago—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 Sanchez’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 Vacansoleil’s trio of Bjorn Leukemans, Stijn Devolder, and Thomas de Gendt. BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet and Liquigas’ Peter Sagan deserve attention, as do Katusha’s Danilo Di Luca, Alexandre Kolobnev, and Joaquin Rodriguez.
And last but not least, one can never ignore Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov—the veteran’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 there’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. He’ll time his sprint perfectly, but in the end it won’t be enough to defeat the Belgian Ronde-winner. Stijn Devolder will do just enough to guarantee himself a spot on the podium—after a race spent yo-yoing between the back and the front.
Amstel Gold Race: 1. Nuyens; 2. Hesjedal; 3. Devolder.
What about you? Who’s your best to take the youngest Spring Classic?
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