Belgian one-day specialist Philippe Gilbert will line up for the Amstel Gold Race knowing that his big objective of the spring lies one week further down the line at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But that won’t stop his rivals taking him as a serious contender for victory Sunday, when Amstel opens a trio of long, hilly one-day races known as the Ardennes Classics.
Gilbert, who rides for Omega-Pharma, had a super 2010 season, winning Amstel in the spring and making up for missing out on a podium at the world road race championships in Australia with autumn victories in the Tour de Piedmont and Tour of Lombardy. And despite primarily targeting the oldest classic of them all at Liege on April 24, the Belgian could be the man to beat Sunday following his easy win at the Fleche Brabanconne in midweek.
Gilbert escaped late in the race with fellow Belgian Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil, who lacked bite when it came to the crunch in the final kilometer and ultimately finished runner-up in the 200 km-long race. At 260 km, Amstel is a different challenge altogether and Leukemans is part of a team which expects to play a starring role in the hilly one-day classic which finishes on the 31st and last climb of the race, the Cauberg.
“I have high expectations and we have a strong team with several riders who can compete in a final,” said Vacansoleil sport director Michel Cornelisse, who will also be counting on Stijn Devolder and Marco Marcato, who was eighth in 2010.
The last time a Dutchman won at Amstel was in 2001 when former Tour de France stage winner Erik Dekker claimed victory, two years after compatriot Michael Boogerd. In Robert Gesink they hope to have found their man. Gesink, a strong climber, is being groomed for potential yellow jersey glory at the Tour de France, but is the hosts’ best chance of victory on Sunday. Nevertheless, the Rabobank rider believes that racing at home won’t be advantageous.
“As a team we will be giving everything to try and win. But it won’t be easy for us,” said Gesink. “All our rivals know we’re riding ‘at home’ and it will be difficult for us to escape. But it’s no secret I want to be first to the finish on the Cauberg.”
Amstel, held in the Limburg region of the Netherlands, features over 20 ‘bergs’ (climbs) over its course and so attracts many of the most powerful climbing specialists in the peloton. Frank Schleck, the brother of two-time Tour de France runner-up, claimed his breakthrough win in the Cauberg in 2006 while Italian Damiano Cunego won in 2008 and Russian Sergei Ivanov prevailed in 2009.
This year Andy and Frank Schleck are part of a Leopard-Trek team which will also include Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara, who finished runner-up at the gruelling Paris-Roubaix cobbled classic last week. Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov won the race in 2003 and won’t be discounted. BMC will line up without Australian Cadel Evans, who has pulled out of the Ardennes Classics because of a knee injury. The American outfit still hope they can score a podium through Belgian Greg Van Avermet, according to sports director John Lelangue.
“We’re still riding for Greg Van Avermaet, but we’re losing a really good guy with Cadel – first as a teammate for Amstel and also as a leader for Fleche Wallonne,” Lelangue said.