What's Cool In Road Cycling

Amstel’08: Out With The Cobbles, Into The Hills

In one quick week, the Spring Classics go from tough, cobbled, hellish tests of strength to tough, hellish tests of strength…without the cobbles. The racing heads to the hills for the next week, first into the Limburg region of Holland for the Amstel Gold Race, and then it’s to the Ardennes. PEZ takes a look at the tough course and riders that will leave their mark on Holland’s only Classic.

***See all the race action live on CYCLING.TV***

Alright, so you’ve had a nice introduction into the large exam the riders will face on Sunday, so I’ll keep the nonsense about the course to a minimum and just throw in some pictures for your enjoyment.

See, I got it over with early. There’s your windmill.

The Amstel Gold Race occupies a commanding spot in the Spring Classics: it is now the transition point into the hilly Classics week. It is the opening race of the three races which make the punchy climbers eyes go a’goggle – first Amstel on Sunday, then it’s into the Ardennes for Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, and La Doyenne: Liege-Bastogne-Liege next Sunday.

A parcours made in Heaven for the adventurous tifosi – you could probably watch the race 87 different times and never drive more than 10k.

The Same, But Different
The Amstel Gold Race has built a niche for itself on the Spring Classics calendar as the bridge between the hard man cobbled Classics and the little man climber vertical climbfests. Amstel Gold has hills, lots of them, 31 in all, but they’re not horribly long like Fleche and LBL, they’re comparable to Flanders if a wee bit longer, and also with that important note: they’re paved…for the most part.

Wait, are those cobbles? Guess you just can’t get away from ’em.

Mmm, that looks easy: up, down, up, down, up, down.

Hills, Hills, And More Hills
There isn’t too much dallying about at Amstel – the race heads immediately into the hills, so there won’t be any nice, long introductions for the riders to stretch, eat breakfast, and think about the podium girls. The race leaves Maastricht and goes straight into the lumps of Limburg in the southernmost tip of Holland, which is famously sandwiched between Germany and Belgium on either side. Like De Ronde, Amstel Gold is centered in a tiny, hilly area, which the race uses to great effect finding damn near every single hill that is rideable, or at least sort of rideable.

Koppenberg eat your heart out.

Short And Steep…And Lots Of Em
The climbs? Apart from the cobbles, they’re similar – short, steep, hard – a little longer and numbering more than the Flanders climbs and obviously ridden differently since there aren’t those pesky stones thrown all over the ‘road’ willy-nilly. Well, ok, that makes for a rather large difference between the two.

The narrow farm roads of Limburg make for some fun racing.

…and right back up again!

The roads? Narrow and twisty, just as in Flanders. Positioning is paramount in the race, as splits will inevitably occur over the umpteen climbs, and who really wants to stop, unclip, and wait for their turn to participate in the climbing of a hellishly steep berg from a starting speed of…0?

The countryside? Hugely variable: from wide open farmlands, to monstrous vertical pieces of pavement, to dense thickets. There will be more than enough to keep the riders awake over the course of the day. Nothing like a little crosswind over the top of a 22% climb on a farm road to keep the head down low and chewing on the stem, right?

Without Further Ado: The Contenders
There will be a number of former champions in the mix this year. Two of them are on the same team and will start our Favorites List: Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher.

Stefan Schumacher is the defending champion after an opportunistic win last year when he attacked a super-elite group in the waning kilometers. Schumi wasn’t one of the BIG favorites in the group of superstars, so the superstars all looked at each other while the young German just rode away. It was a fantastic win for Schumacher, and one that many don’t see being repeated. I say don’t count him out, and at the bare minimum, Schumacher and Fabian Wegmann will be over-qualified aids for a second Davide Rebellin win.

I won’t wait too long for my number one pick: Davide Rebellin. Gerolsteiner’s hilly Classics specialist was second last year, won a couple years back, and has more top 10s in this specific week than I do years in my body. Rebellin is reliable, he is fast, and he seems to have figured out how to win these races after a long while where he was just always THERE. Rebellin even managed to pick up that elusive Paris-Nice win for the first time in his career earlier this season. It’s hard to say just how good he’s going at the moment, but my guess is just fine.

Don’t Come To The Line With…
Alejandro Valverde hasn’t won at Amstel Gold yet, but he will. He didn’t race Pais Vasco as he has done in the past, so his form was mildly unknown…that is, until he went and won Paris-Camembert with a commanding sprint win after opening it up from 500m out. Yes, Alejandro Valverde is a very solid bet this Sunday on the Cauberg. If he comes to the line in some kind of group, he WILL win. The only problem with Valverde is that no one wants to go to the line with him – if he’s in a small group, riders could be less keen to work or adamantly won’t, if he’s in a larger group there will be mucho attacking. It’s not always an easy road to victory when you’re THAT fast of a finisher.

The only thing is, there are a number of fast finishers that should be in contention on Sunday: Damiano Cunego, Riccardo Ricco, and Oscar Freire.

The Other Fast Finishers
Both Damiano Cunego and Oscar Freire have shown recently that they’re going very well. Cunego took a stage win at Pais Vasco and Freire, well, Freire won at Gent-Wevelgem. Amstel Gold is a bit different than Gent-Wevelgem, but anyone who can win three World Championships is more than up to the task of Amstel Gold. Nuff said.

Riccardo Ricco, however, is a real question mark. I don’t think he should be, but we haven’t heard much of late from the sometimes angry young superstar. Most likely, I would assume this is a good sign that Ricco is in the midst of monstrous Giro preparations, which would mean that this week could well be a big first test. I think Ricco will be good, and he is very quick on the line. Ricco v. Valverde…intriguing.

The last time we saw Ricco, he was throwing his bike.

The Next Wave
Much has been made of Contador’s win at Pais Vasco, Evans and Dekker rounding out the podium, and Cunego’s stage win, but there’s another rider who needs attention: Kim Kirchen. Kirchen hasn’t netted a big Classics win, yet, but he is due, and he is apparently rolling very well after two stage wins in the Basque Country. Count on him to be there, but he can’t beat any of the fast finishers (though he is still mighty quick), so he’ll need to find a break.

Thomas Dekker and Frank Schleck are two others who will be plenty good on Sunday, but you know HAVE to get away, preferrably solo. Both can do this. Schleck did it to great effect when he won the Amstel Gold Race two years ago, and Dekker seems poised for something like that, especially coming off of his Third Place overall at Pais Vasco.

Don’t Take My Word For It
I might act like I know something about the topic, but I don’t get paid to get it right like a bookie does, so have a look-see at Unibet.com’s odds. It just so happens that my opinions fall into line with theirs, but that’s mainly because I’m not a complete idiot: Valverde, Rebellin, Cunego, and my outsider: Freire. It’s not too tough.

Valverde 7.00
Rebellin 7.50
Cunego 7.50
Ricco 10.00
Freire 11.00
Kirchen 12.00
Schleck F 12.00
Schumacher 13.00
Dekker 14.00
Kroon 17.00
Gilbert 20.00
Hoste 22.00
Rodriguez J 25.00
Gesink 25.00
Wegmann 30.00
Nocentini 35.00

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