It's kind of disorienting to shift gears to the hilly classics after obsessing over the Cobbles for some eight weeks. Who are these little guys picking up their checked bags at the Brussels airport and waving to their larger teammates headed in the other direction to lounge at a beach for a while? OK, I exaggerate -- the favorites for the next few weeks of racing are most of the biggest names in the sport, names like Valverde, Vinokourov, Bettini, Schleck, DiLuca and so forth. People we're all pretty familiar with, even if we haven't seen them in a while.
I'm in an airport with a weak laptop battery, so I'm going to split the Amstel preview into at least two parts (and others are welcomed to take a chunk off my hands. For now, let's look at how the race is won.
The answer, as usual, is a number of ways. Since 2003 the Amstel Gold race has finished on the top of the Cauberg, the signature climb for the event, as opposed to a Cauberg descent and brief run-in to a flat finish. The first such edition ended with Alexandre Vinokourov blitzing a ten-man field with an attack from a few km out. 2004 saw Davide Rebellin and Michael Boogerd sneak away at about the same place for a two-up sprint, won by Rebellin in his magical spring. 2005 saw... well, nobody saw anything through the fog, but Danilo DiLuca won from a huge finale of 30 riders. And last year, Frank Schleck attacked with 9km to go, not looking forward to a sprint.
Schleck's reasoning was sound: the peloton keeps getting stronger, and even the 31 climbs of Amstel Gold aren't enough to winnow the field if riders at the front don't try to affirmatively break things up. So the question this year is, will someone take the chance with a late attack? If not, expect maybe a dozen riders lining up for the last trip up the Cauberg. But riders aren't fools, and have seen the way aggressiveness has won the day in the Cauberg-finishing era. Pick your strongest few guys without a sprint and watch for them in the last 15 km... if they can get away, then the otherwise inevitable sprint may be foiled once again.
Take the poll: are 31 hills not enough of a challenge to break up the peloton? Hit entry link to vote.
Are the climbs hard enough to break up Amstel Gold?
This poll is closed
Nope, the race will end in a bunch sprint
Sorta... the Cauberg will lure out some late attacks
Yes, the race will come down to a few select riders in the last 5km