Can Alejandro Valverde become only the sixth rider in history to win all three Ardennes Classics?

The Spaniard is in good form, having won the small French Paris-Camembert race in the week, and only needs Amstel Gold (Sunday, April 20) to complete the career grand slam which also includes the two Belgian Classics, next Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the following Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Valverde won both Belgian races in 2006 and was second in both last year but he’s never performed particularly well at Amstel Gold. Could this year be different?

See our guide to the top favourites on page two of this preview.

THE ARDENNES GRAND SLAM

Only five riders have won all three of the Ardennes Classics in their career. Davide Rebellin did it in little over a week in 2004 ? the only man to win them all in the same season.

Eddy Merckx
Amstel Gold: 1973, 75
Flèche Wallonne: 67, 70, 72
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 69, 71, 72, 73, 75

Bernard Hinault
Amstel Gold: 81
Flèche Wallonne: 79, 83
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 77, 80

Michele Bartoli
Amstel Gold: 2002
Flèche Wallonne: 1999
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 97, 98

Davide Rebellin
Amstel Gold: 2004, 2007
Flèche Wallonne: 2004
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 2004

Danilo Di Luca
Amstel Gold: 2005
Flèche Wallonne: 2005
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 2007

AMSTEL GOLD RACE: THE LOWDOWN
Sunday, April 20
257km
British Eurosport: 17.00-18.30 (highlights)

RECENT WINNERS

2007 Stefan Schumacher (Germany)
2006 Frank Schleck (Luxembourg)
2005 Danilo Di Luca (Italy)
2004 Davide Rebellin (Italy)
2003 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan)
2002 Michele Bartoli (Italy)
2001 Erik Dekker (Netherlands)
2000 Erik Zabel (Germany)
1999 Michael Boogerd (Netherlands)
1998 Rolf Jaermann (Switzerland)

KICKING OFF ARDENNES WEEK

It?s a week of three very different uphill finishes. The Cauberg, the Mur de Huy and the Rue Jean Jaures.

If the back street in Liège is the gentlest hill, it comes at the end of the toughest race. Flèche Wallonne is all about the Mur de Huy, a brutally steep test that is climbed three times in the race.

The Cauberg, a little hill tucked away at the back of the town of Valkenburg, brings a taste of stadium atmosphere to professional cycling. The grand tours have great mountain passes that generate a tremendous buzz, but the Cauberg is a street in a town, flanked by bars, restaurants and hotels.

People gather early to watch the race on television and then rush out, or hang off balconies, to see them pass.

Strategically it may not be the most important hill in world cycling, but for pure adrenaline-induced excitement there?s nowhere to match it.

It?s odd, really. The Amstel Gold Race is the youngest and least prestigious of the spring Classics. It came along in 1966, long after even Flèche Wallonne and Ghent-Wevelgem were established. When it shifted date a few years ago, to kick off, rather than conclude a week of racing in the Ardennes, it seemed to enjoy a new lease of life. It?s no longer a rather tame anti-climax after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Instead, it sets things up for the two Belgian races to come.

And moving the finish to the top of the Cauberg in 2003 changed the dimension of the race. They wouldn?t admit it, but the final straw was Erik Zabel, an out-and-out sprinter, winning in 2000.

To this year?s race, then, and while there is a whirl of excitement surrounding a new generation of riders, such as Riccardo Ricco, Robert Gesink and Maxime Montfort, it seems likely that the established riders will again be at the fore.

Previous winners Davide Rebellin, Stefan Schumacher and Frank Schleck will be the favourites, together with Alejandro Valverde. The only question mark over the really big names is over whether they will be keeping their eyes more firmly fixed on the bigger prize to come in Liège?

With Paolo Bettini recovering from his cracked rib after a fall at the Tour of the Basque Country, Quick Step are left leaderless. Bettini will also skip Flèche Wallonne, opting to ride the Tour of Trentino to get ready for Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

There is one puzzling question about this race though, and that is: Why hasn?t Astana picked Alberto Contador? Starved of so much top racing by Astana?s exclusion from the Giro d?Italia, the Tour de France and all other ASO-run races, you?d have thought the Spaniard would have welcomed a crack at a bona fide Classic? Having won the Tour of the Basque Country at ease last week, it is a very odd decision to keep him out of action until the Dauphiné Libéré in June.

And they said that professional cycling was not all about the Tour? Perhaps if Astana really believed that, they?d pitch the defending Tour champion into one of the few Classics that would welcome him with open arms.

AMSTEL GOLD ON YOU TUBE

1999
Markus Zberg of Rabobank and Gabriele Missaglia of Lampre collide with a motorbike that had stopped in the most ridiculous place imaginable ? on the outside of a corner. As David Duffield says in this clip: ?That. Is. Stupid!?



2006
A musical montage of Frank Schleck?s win.



PART TWO…
Read part two: We pick our Amstel Gold favourites, plus lots more