Sunday's Amstel Gold Classic is about as challenging a blog subject as there is. The race is short on history, the course map is a disaster, and the outcome is almost impossible to handicap. It doesn't appear to have any nicknames at all, and by mentioning its sponsor it bears the Pro Tour's second-worst race name (don't even get me started on the HEW Cyclassics...).
But none of this holds it back from being an absolutely great race. The course, however convoluted, is a thigh-melting 250 KM through beautiful, rolling farmland, sort of Europe meets Vermont (I'm told), with an occasional 22% grade thrown in for kicks. It fits squarely in the middle of the Classics season, and being the first of the hilly Ardennes races, it brings out the biggest names in Cycling, even the Tour contenders, while still making room for what's left of the Cobbled Classics peloton.
And most importantly, it's the national race of Holland, an A-list Cycling nation.
According to Wikipedia, the race was organized in 1966 as part of the celebration of Queen Juliana's birthday -- something of a party anyway, and especially a propos considering Juliana was given to getting around by bike, among her many populist virtues. [I don't want to wade into politics, but she sounds pretty cool.] Anyway, the air of celebration around the race is apparent from the official race website, which doubles as the organization of a citizens race as well as the place to buy your tickets to the post-race party.
The course map makes it look like a club hill reps ride -- "Hey, let's go back and hit the Gulperberg again!" For tourists at the Classics, you usually have to pick one or two spots to watch, and hope you can navigate the roads between if you're to see the race a second time. For Amstel, if you go to Limburg and stand in one place long enough, the race will find you, possibly multiple times.
[To understand the route, go to the official race website, where in the top bar you can watch your cursor move through the course and across the profile, simultaneously.]
From the riders' perspective, what makes this a legitimate Classics course (i.e. mind-numbingly difficult), despite the lack of cobbles or long alpine climbs, is the relentless schedule of 30 short climbs. In recent years Amstel Gold has been targeted by the grand tour contenders, guys whose stature tends to draw much of the attention. Lance himself was a regular here, making it one of the few one-day events he would let distract from his Tour prep. The course has undergone constant tinkering, and the last two editions have even featured an uphill finish on the Cauberg, Amstel's answer to the Poggio when it comes to determining the winner.
But there's no Alpe d'Huez: the short climbs don't necessarily favor the flyweight climbers over the Classics powerhouses. They favor, quite simply, whomever is the strongest. Going back over the last decade or so, the race has been won by Tour guys (Vinokourov, Bjarne Riis), Classics all-rounders (Michael Boogerd, Johan Museeuw), sprinters who can climb (Erik Zabel, Erik Dekker), and climbers who can sprint (Danilo DiLuca, Davide Rebellin, Michele Bartoli). Look up all the big names over at CyclingStartLists.com, and those are your favorites.
Interestingly, Professor Wilcockson finds a connection to the Pais Vasco, won last week by Jose Gomez Marchante. Of late, the Basque Tour has been an ideal warmup for the Ardennes, and last year Danilo DiLuca parlayed his winning form in Euskadi into wins at Amstel and La Fleche Wallon. Putting one and one together, Prof. Wilcockson has Gomez Marchante down as a dark horse. I hate to question his judgment -- his dog knows more about Cycling than I ever will -- but it's worth mentioning that no Spaniard has ever even stepped on the Amstel podium. But there's a first for everything, I suppose.
Anyway, as always, all eyes will be on the Dutch riders and their lone Pro Tour team Rabobank. After some lean years, the Rabos have gotten their act back together, thanks to the expanded Pro Tour rosters that don't punish them for not being able to decide their priorities. What had been a squad with a little of everything and not enough of anything, now has enough of everything. This Sunday's squad will feature no less than five legitimate hopefuls: past winners Michael Boogerd and a resurgent Erik Dekker, the Spanish Flandrian Juan Antonio Flecha and his intrepid compadre Oscar Freire, and Thomas Dekker, Holland's next-big-thing. Boogerd is the race's tragic figure: second place a whopping four times (including the last three years), and his lone victory stained by the memory of his having sat on Lance's wheel non-stop for the last hour of the race before coming around at the line. Worse, every time he finishes second, the victory photo picks up his glaring white, toothy grin in the background, so there's no disguising his failure. Anyway, at 33 years, he's running out of chances to finish second, but I bet he's got one more in him.
One last note: last year's edition was raced in a blanket of fog, utterly unwatchable. All the helicopters were grounded and the motorcycles couldn't focus or transmit much. For an amusing trip down memory lane, here's CyclingNews' attempt at live coverage, poor lads.