Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race (April 19) kicks off a week of racing in the Ardennes, with Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday (April 22) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege the following Sunday (April 26).
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) is one name on the Amstel start list that raises a number of questions. Can he become only the sixth rider in history to win all three of the Ardennes Classics? And, more importantly, should he even be there?
Valverde is still at the centre of accusations that he used the services of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the heart of the Operacion Puerto blood doping scandal in Spain. The Italians think he’s guilty, and may ban Valverde from competing in that country – effectively ruling him out from taking part in this year’s Tour de France, which visits Italy on one stage.
No matter, at the moment Valverde is free to race in the Netherlands, and his Caisse d’Epargne squad have named him on their team for Sunday.
The controversial presence of Valverde aside, other big contenders on the start line in Maastricht include: defending 2008 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre); 2006 winner and 2008 runner-up Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank); and home favourite Thomas Dekker (Silence-Lotto).
Two Tour de France stars are also in attendance: 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) and 2008 Tour runner-up Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto). Sastre is likely to treat Amstel as a training ride, but Evans may have a dig if he has the legs.
And there’s Davide Rebellin (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni), one of the aforementioned six riders who have completed the Ardennes triple. Rebellin is the only rider to have won all three in the same season – in 2004.
Daniel Lloyd (Cervelo) is Britain’s only representative at the race. Lloyd is on good form at the moment, having placed ninth at the tough Mont Paschi Eroica in Italy and then featured in a long break at the Tour of Flanders. Could another top ten place be on the cards for Sunday?
Ireland is represented by Nicholas Roche (Ag2r), Philip Deignan (Cervelo) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Slipstream).
|AMSTEL GOLD RACE ROUTE|
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|KICKING OFF ARDENNES WEEK|
It?s a week of three very different uphill finishes. The Cauberg, the Mur de Huy and the Rue Jean Jaures.
If the back street in Liège is the gentlest hill, it comes at the end of the toughest race. Flèche Wallonne is all about the Mur de Huy, a brutally steep test that is climbed three times in the race.
The Cauberg, a little hill tucked away at the back of the town of Valkenburg, brings a taste of stadium atmosphere to professional cycling. The grand tours have great mountain passes that generate a tremendous buzz, but the Cauberg is a street in a town, flanked by bars, restaurants and hotels.
People gather early to watch the race on television and then rush out, or hang off balconies, to see them pass.
Strategically it may not be the most important hill in world cycling, but for pure adrenaline-induced excitement there?s nowhere to match it.
It?s odd, really. The Amstel Gold Race is the youngest and least prestigious of the spring Classics. It came along in 1966, long after even Flèche Wallonne and Ghent-Wevelgem were established. When it shifted date a few years ago, to kick off, rather than conclude a week of racing in the Ardennes, it seemed to enjoy a new lease of life. It?s no longer a rather tame anti-climax after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Instead, it sets things up for the two Belgian races to come.
And moving the finish to the top of the Cauberg in 2003 changed the dimension of the race. They wouldn?t admit it, but the final straw was Erik Zabel, an out-and-out sprinter, winning in 2000.
|AMSTEL GOLD RACE ON TV|
Sunday, April 19 – 2.15-4pm, British Eurosport
2008 Damiano Cunego (Italy)
2007 Stefan Schumacher (Germany)
2006 Frank Schleck (Luxembourg)
2005 Danilo Di Luca (Italy)
2004 Davide Rebellin (Italy)
2003 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan)
2002 Michele Bartoli (Italy)
2001 Erik Dekker (Netherlands)
2000 Erik Zabel (Germany)
1999 Michael Boogerd (Netherlands)
1998 Rolf Jaermann (Switzerland)
|LAST YEAR’S TOP TEN|
Photo: Luc Claessen
1. Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
2. Frank Schleck (CSC) at same time
3. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) at two secs
4. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)
5. Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) both s.t
6. Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld) at 14secs
7. Serguei Ivanov (Astana) at 18secs
8. Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) at 23secs
9. Karsten Kroon (CSC) at 27secs
10. Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) at 45secs.
|BRITS AT AMSTEL|
All the top 20 finishes by British riders at the Amstel Gold Race
Malcolm Elliott 1987
Read about how Elliott was turned over by the Dutch in Cycling Weekly Classic
Joey McLoughlin 1986
Barry Hoban 1971
Graham Jones 1979
Max Sciandri 1997