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Irish Tilt At Amstel gold

Posted 16 April 2010

No Irish rider has ever won the Amstel Gold Race and Irish pros Philip Deignan and Nicolas Roche certainly have their work cut out to write history on the finishing climb of the renowned Cauberg.

The opener for the three hilly Ardennes Classics features no less than 31 punishing climbs as the 257.8 kilometre race weaves its way through the hills of Southern Limburg in the Netherlands.

The Pro Tour classic is the most important race on the Dutch cycling calendar and the list of potential winners is almost as long as the climbs that the riders will negotiate during more than six hours of racing.

Amstel Gold is one of the most difficult races to predict with its narrow, winding  roads and undulating parcours whittling down the contenders as it draws closer  to the third and final ascent of the Cauberg in Valkenburg.

The surprise withdrawl of pre-race favourite Fabian Cancellara has turned the spotlight on his Saxo-Bank teammate Andy Schleck. Cancellara told fans that he was “simply tired” after his astounding Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix back-to-back wins and that he felt there was no sense in contesting Amstel Gold when he couldn’t give it the same effort.

While Schleck, who won last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, is showing promising signs of another sterling performance in the Ardennes he is by no means the race favourite and the Dutch fans will be hoping that the tough course can produce a home grown winner.

Rabobank’s Robert Gesink came close to winning last year’s event when he launched a stinging attack on the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg with 13 kilometres to go.

Fellow Dutchman Karsten Kroon, who was riding for the Saxo-Bank team at the time, and Sergey Ivanov (Katusha) joined him on the run into Valkenburg before the big Russian spoiled the Dutch party by beating Kroon in the uphill sprint.

Gesink spent last week honing his form at the Tour of the Basque country until a crash on the final climb of the notoriously steep Alto de Aia on the penultimate stage to Orio seen him drop out of the top three in GC while also sustaining a serious hand injury.

Kroon has since moved to the newly formed BMC Racing Team who was one of four teams to receive a wildcard entry to the race. The seasoned 33 year old can rely on team mate Cadel Evans for support but the World Champion will not be found wanting if a winning opportunity presents itself.

While the Dutch have recorded more wins that any other country with 17 from the previous 44 editions of Amstel Gold it is now ten years since a Dutch rider stood on the race winner’s podium.

The winner on that occasion in 2001 was Erik Dekker who is now a team manager at Rabobank. Dekker knows plenty about how to tackle Amstel Gold as a race favourite and he can also rely upon Milan San Remo winner Oscar Freire and Lars Boom to figure in the final shake-up.

Freire will share the race leadership with Gesink with the Spaniard having skipped the Tour of Flanders to give himself the best possible opportunity of realising his long-term goal of winning Amstel Gold.

On paper it would appear that Saxo-Bank are still the team to beat. The team also includes the 2006 winner Frank Schleck, who returns after a brief lay-off following head injuries he sustained having crashed in the third stage of the Basque Tour, the irrepressible Jens Voight, Nicki Sorensen, Jakob Fuglsang, Jonas Aaen-Jorgensen and Laurent Didier.

Philip Deignan (Cervelo Test Team) has been rebuilding his form after a bout of flu with 12th and 10th placings at the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe while also being one of just 51 riders from 170 starters to finish this week’s Brabantse Pijl in western Belgium.

Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) has spent the past fortnight preparing for the Ardennes Classics near his base in Varese in Italy and has been concentrating on recovering and maintaining the early season condition which seen him achieve nine top ten placings.

Roche also spent this week preparing for the race by reconnoitering the cobbled sections which will form the final 40 kilometres of this year’s Tour de France stage from Wanze to Arenberg.

Deignan has admitted that he is more focused on Liege-Bastogne-Liege while Roche believes that next Wednesday’s Fleche-Wallonne presents his best opportunity of making an impression on the Ardennes Classics.

Dan Martin (Garmin Transitions) is expected to ride Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege having recently impressed at the Tour of the Basque Country where he finished 15th in GC.

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