MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) – The Limburg region lays the gauntlet Sunday with Dutch winds, 260 constantly bending kilometers and 32 significant climbs testing the peloton at the Amstel Gold Race Sunday. The first major Ardennes Classic – and the biggest annual day of racing in the Netherlands – pits defending champion Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) against a world-class field as the climbers begin a week that culminates with the oldest monument of them all, Liège-Bastogne- Liège.
The twisting climbs of the Limburg start at kilometer ten on Palm Sunday with the Maasberg. Three intertwined circuits mean hills like the nearly 20-percent Gulperberg and the Valkenberg finish climb make two appearances in the race for a total of 32 climbs. The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Gulperberg won’t offer any help overlooking the summit of the first of six bergs in the closing 25 kilometers.
The road chokes to a single lane as it climbs 59 meters to the hill above the town of Gulpen for the second time 262 kilometers into the day. From there, twisting descents and narrow, sharp climbs mark the road as an elite group almost certainly emerges over the Kruisberg and disintegrates over the penultimate climb, the 1700-meter, 21-percent max Keutenberg.
Eight winding kilometers down to the town of Valkenberg usually glue the front of the race back together somewhat and the finale should come down to a well-timed attack on the Cauberg. Rowdy Dutch fans poured out of restaurants at the base of the finish climb to watch in 2010 as Gilbert waited until the halfway point of the 900-meter Cauberg to make his move. The Wallonian followed early attacks by Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha) and Bert De Waele and jumped in the steepest section of the climb to easily take a 10-plus-bike length win in race founder Hermann Krott’s last edition before his death in October at the age of 79. The result started an impressive run through the year’s hilly classics for Gilbert, which culminated in a second consecutive win at the Tour of Lombardy three days before Krott’s passing.
Gilbert was his usual affable self Friday afternoon, smiling as he sat for his final press conference before pulling on the low number on Sunday morning. “I’m starting with the number one on Sunday; that’s always something special,” said Gilbert. “I’ve already won some races before so that’s better (than 2010), with less pressure from the press. I’ve done everything to be okay and ready to win these races and I have good support with this team and can arrive to the start with confidence.”
Gilbert couldn’t count out the other rider on the tip of classics tongues, Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek), for the finale Sunday, even if the parcours doesn’t necessarily suit the big Swiss. Other top favorites for the Amstel Gold Race include Dutchman Robert Gesink (Rabobank), former winners Fränk Schleck (Leopard), Sergei Ivanov (Katusha), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), past runners-up Karsten Kroon (BMC Racing) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo), and Andy Schleck (Leopard). Ronde van Vlaanderen victor Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) will also be at the start in Maastricht Sunday morning.
The last Dutchman to win in Valkenberg was Erik Dekker in 2001. The drought is the longest in the race’s history.
With demands on the mind and legs from the rollout Sunday morning, the most fit, attentive and lucky rider in the field should find a frosty beverage waiting atop the Cauberg to mark the first of three consecutive weekends of festivities in the Netherlands. If that rider is Gesink, the party will go on until Queen’s Day April 30.
Stay online with VeloNews.com and @VeloNewsLive on Twitter for full coverage of the 46th Amstel Gold Race on Sunday April 17.
Amstel Gold Race Winners Since 2000
2010- Philippe Gilbert (BEL)
2009- Sergei Ivanov (RUS)
2008- Damiano Cunego (ITA)
2007- Stefan Schumacher (GER)
2006- Frank Schleck (LUX)
2005- Danilo Di Luca (ITA)
2004- Davide Rebellin (ITA)
2003- Alexandre Vinokourov (KAZ)
2002- Michele Bartoli (ITA)
2001- Erik Dekker (NED)
2000- Erik Zabel (GER)
Amstel Gold Race Notable Winners
Jean Stablinski (FRA) – First edition (1966)
Jan Raas (NED) – Most wins (1977-1980, 1982)
Eddy Merckx (BEL) – Twice, 1973 and 1975
Arie den Hartog (NED) – First Dutch win (1967)
Erik Dekker (NED) – Most recent Dutch win (2001)