The hilly Classics kick off on Sunday, with the Amstel Gold Race. Cycle Sport’s team of experts analyse the race and make their predictions for the outcome.


Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

DO YOU CONSIDER THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE TO BE A TRUE CLASSIC?
It’s certainly not in the same league as four of the five monuments (Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) but I’d put it on a par with the Tour of Lombardy which, though a beautiful race, suffers slightly these days because it’s held at the butt-end of the season when there are really only about two dozen fully-fit, fully-motivated riders.

Amstel Gold suffers a little because it’s younger than all the others – first run in 1966 – and because it takes its name from a sponsor. As a race it’s on the same level as Fléche Wallonne in terms of prestige, I’d say. In fact, it has risen in status since they swapped the running order so that Liège-Bastogne-Liège, rather than Amstel Gold concludes the spring Classic season. It benefits from being a warm-up for Liège rather than a consolation prize for those who missed out. Bear in mind that until the mid-1990s, the Amstel Gold often clashed with the Vuelta a Espana too, so it’s definitely more important than it used to be.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF THE RACE?
I remember watching the Tour de France in about 1985 or 1986 and two riders were away, I can’t recall who they were but one was Dutch. Anyway, the Dutchman sat on for ages, then attacked to win and Phil Liggett said: “It just goes to show, you can never trust a Dutchman.” It was the sort of comment that would spark a Twitter outrage these days but what Liggett was saying was that the Dutch riders did have this reputation that they would do anything, tactically speaking, to get the upper hand on their opponents. It springs to mind because my earliest memory of Amstel Gold was reading in Cycling Weekly that Malcolm Elliott had been worked over by three Dutchmen in a break in 1987. The intro to the report read: “Three patriotic Dutchmen joined forces to defeat England’s Malcolm Elliott at Amstel Gold on Saturday. A British win would have rocked Holland’s cycling prestige, so Joop Zoetemelk, Steven Rooks and Teun Van Vliet buried their differences for a day and combined to blunt the feared sprint of Elliott.”

From actually watching the race, the first image I can conjure is the moment in 1999 when Markus Zberg and Gabriele Missaglia, who were chasing Lance Armstrong and Michael Boogerd, came to grief as they went round a left-hand bend. A motorbike, one of the photographers, I think, had parked on the outside of the corner – the worst possible place to stop. As the two riders swung wide to get round the corner without losing too much speed, they clipped the bike and went down.

Without wishing to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, there is a fundamental issue that blights the Ardennes Classics. I am not for a moment suggesting their cobbled counterparts are whiter than white but in the past decade Amstel Gold has been won by Alexandre Vinokourov, Davide Rebellin, Danilo Di Luca and Stefan Schumacher – all of whom have served doping suspensions for serious and blatant cheating. Even Serguei Ivanov has had a brush with the rules. In 2000 he was prevented from starting the Tour de France at the last minute when he failed a haematocrit test.

Perhaps that explains why relatively few brilliant moments of racing remain in the memory banks. For some people, these races need a sustained period during which the cast of usual suspects do not come to the fore in order to restore trust.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
Liège-Bastogne-Liège has some truly iconic hills. Flèche Wallonne has the Mur de Huy. Amstel Gold has the Cauberg. The 2000 race was won by Erik Zabel – a sprinter – from a 14-man group. It wasn’t just that the race was won by a sprinter but that the size of the group arriving at the finish was getting bigger. In 2003, the organisers moved the finish line to the top of the Cauberg. It’s not a ridiculously steep hill but it is long, it wends up through the back of Valkenburg. At the bottom there are lots of bars and cafes, meaning there can be a real stadium atmosphere on race day. The rest of the route lacks the definition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Eyserbosweg is no La Redoute. What makes Amstel Gold challenging is that there are so many climbs – 32 in all. The country lanes are extremely narrow and twisty. The roads through the towns are littered with street furniture and traffic-calming measures – speed bumps, raised kerbs and chicanes. This makes positioning very important.

WHERE OR HOW WILL THE RACE BE DECIDED?
In all likelihood, the Cauberg will decide the podium places. The biggest challenge is whittling down the number of contenders before getting there. It takes a lot of strength to attack before the Cauberg and gain a gap big enough to maintain on the climb.

WHICH RECENT RACES SHOULD WE STUDY FOR A FORM GUIDE?
Take a look at the previous year’s top 10 and combine with the riders who were going well at the Tour of the Basque Country, Giro dell’Appennino and Brabantse Pijl. So, it’s Robert Gesink v Damiano Cunego v Philippe Gilbert then.

IT’S NOW 10 YEARS SINCE RABOBANK HAD A ‘HOME’ WIN. WHAT ARE THEIR CHANCES THIS TIME?
They have a great chance with Robert Gesink. The stick-thin climber has had a great season so far. He won the mountain stage at the Tour of Oman. He led Tirreno-Adriatico until a mishap on stage five and a couple of weeks ago he was third overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. He’ll get tremendous support from the crowd too.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Robert Gesink
2 Damiano Cunego
3 Philippe Gilbert

Edward Pickering
Deputy Editor, Cycle Sport

DO YOU CONSIDER THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE TO BE A TRUE CLASSIC?
Strictly speaking, no. It just doesn’t have the history or USPs of the other Classics. It’s a great hilly one-day race with a nice parcours, but by that definition, the Cycle Sport/Cycling Weekly lunchtime ride is a Classic. Still, the definition seems to be elastic, so while I’m prepared to say that I don’t consider it a true Classic, I’m not concerned enough about it to enter into a Twitter debate about it.

My other, less rational, justification is that counting Classic wins, Sean Kelly’s won 10, and Jan Raas has won six. Start counting Amstels, and Raas has won 11. No Classics ranking should put Raas above Kelly.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF THE RACE?
Dutchman Frans Maassen winning the 1991 race has always stuck in my mind, not for the racing, but because it was an object lesson in the realities of cycling for a naive teenager. He beat the much faster Maurizio Fondriest in a sprint, putting his win down to “miracle legs” in his finish line interview. Neutral observers might have put it down to him taking the Italian from one side of the road to the other. Still, you don’t disqualify Dutch riders in Dutch Classics, do you?

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
I’m a sucker for a hilly race, so I like it, even though it’s not quite as special a route as Liège. Don’t underestimate the Cauberg, not just the climb, but the short false flat at the top – the sprint needs brute strength, and just enough tactical nous to get the timing right.
 I also recommend that every cycling fan in the world spends at least one race day on the Cauberg. Any climb that is lined by pubs and bars is fine by me.

WHERE OR HOW WILL THE RACE BE DECIDED?
On the Cauberg, probably. But hopefully the riders will make a lot more of the earlier climbs, especially given that if Philippe Gilbert is at the front of the race at the bottom of the Cauberg, it’s going to be extremely difficult to beat him. If his rivals allow that to happen, they’ve only got themselves to blame.
I’d also like to entertain the idea that Cancellara is going to do a ride. It probably won’t end in victory, but if he really does have ambitions in the hilly Classics, now is the time to start doing something about it.

WHICH RECENT RACES SHOULD WE STUDY FOR A FORM GUIDE?
Flèche and Liège are easy – just look at who’s done well in Amstel, but Amstel is the first of the hilly races, and we don’t know until the top of the Cauberg who has judged their form the best.

Looking at last year’s top five, two (Hesjedal and Kreuziger) also finished in the top 10 of the Tour of Catalonia. But Amstel winner Gilbert rode Paris-Nice, then De Panne and the Classics. I reckon looking at the top 10 of Amstel, Flèche and Liège from 2010 gives us more of a guide.

IT’S NOW 10 YEARS SINCE RABOBANK HAD A ‘HOME’ WIN. WHAT ARE THEIR CHANCES THIS TIME?
Robert Gesink can win, but he will have to resolve the problem that several of his rivals are more explosive in the sprint, especially Gilbert and Cunego. Home advantage might give him the extra impetus he needs.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Philippe Gilbert
2 Samuel Sanchez
3 Alexandr Kolobnev

Andy McGrath
Writer, Cycle Sport

DO YOU CONSIDER THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE TO BE A TRUE CLASSIC?
Sure, it doesn’t have the history or prestige of its neighbours. In fact, with its Monument-surrounded position in the calendar, it comes out as the unflashy Jermaine Jenas (sorry Spurs fans) figure when the other ones dazzling the fans are Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. 
But all in all, it’s a good race, deserving of its Classic status. The final 20 kilometres are full of suspense, the closing climbs throw up tense chase scenarios and the atmosphere on the Cauberg is electric. It whets the appetite nicely for the coming week.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF THE RACE?
When recent winners of the race have had their brushes with anti-doping law, it tars my perception of certain past editions today.

That said, Frank Schleck’s 2006 win sticks in my mind, for the impressive solo attack and the ectastic, gurn-heavy victory celebration.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
Challenging enough, but for the favourites, it comes down to staying out of trouble until the final twenty kilometres. I feel the race is always in danger of becoming a straight shootout up the Cauberg.

WHERE OR HOW WILL THE RACE BE DECIDED?
In the run-in, the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg has seen decisive moves go in recent years. And it’s no Mur de Huy, but the Cauberg always provides a fitting final sort-out.

WHICH RECENT RACES SHOULD WE STUDY FOR A FORM GUIDE?
As the Classics season segues from cobbles to scores of Dutch hills, it’s the stage racers coming from the Tours of Catalonia and the Basque Country who will make the biggest dent in the top ten. That and freakishly-strong all-rounders going strong from the Tour of Flanders (hello, Phil Gilbert and Sylvain Chavanel).

IT’S NOW 10 YEARS SINCE RABOBANK HAD A ‘HOME’ WIN. WHAT ARE THEIR CHANCES THIS TIME?
As good as ever. Robert Gesink is due a Classic win, not least to show the management that he’s not a big-race bottler à-la-Boogerd. He looks to have the form and the confidence this year to challenge. The thing is, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège seem even better suited to his capacities.
Still, there’s Freire and Luis Leon Sanchez for back-up. And with recent Classics playing into the hands of the underdogs, they will be hoping that particular sequence holds.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Philippe Gilbert
2 Fränk Schleck
3 Robert Gesink

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

DO YOU CONSIDER THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE TO BE A TRUE CLASSIC?
It may be a little newer than most, and therefore not have the same history, but you stand on the Cauberg in a sea of orange and try telling the Dutch fans that their race is not a true Classic.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF THE RACE?
2001 when Erik Dekker outsprinted Lance Armstrong for the win. It was a bit of a fairer fight than two years previously when another Rabobank man – Michael Boogerd – sat on Armstrong’s wheel in the closing stages and then pipped him on the line. This time, we had Dekker fighting across to join Armstrong and Eddy Mazzoleni in the front group and, after ridding themselves of the Italian on the Keutenberg, Dekker defied team orders to work with Armstrong right up to the final 500 metres where the pair almost came to a standstill, like they were involved in a track sprint, with Serge Baguet all the while approaching quickly from behind to close the gap and add to the suspense. Great stuff.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
It reminds me of any number of Worlds courses: an attrition. The climbs come thick and fast – a little more like a Flanders without the cobbles, rather than a Liège, which it’s lumped in with as an Ardennes Classic – all building towards the Cauberg finale. The truth is, Amstel Gold is unique, and can stand alone as a great race in itself.

WHERE OR HOW WILL THE RACE BE DECIDED?
I’m hoping for a coming-together of the big names for a big finish on the Cauberg, thanks to a large number of riders showing great form already this season. Imagine Philippe Gilbert, Robert Gesink, the Schleck brothers, Alexandre Vinokourov and Fabian Cancellara – the latter still desperate for a Classics win this year – all spread out across the road… And Vinokourov winning.

WHICH RECENT RACES SHOULD WE STUDY FOR A FORM GUIDE?
Since its calendar-slot change last year, the Brabantse Pijl appears to be the gauge. And if this year’s result is anything to go by, then Gilbert is looking pretty good already for a repeat win…

IT’S NOW 10 YEARS SINCE RABOBANK HAD A ‘HOME’ WIN. WHAT ARE THEIR CHANCES THIS TIME?
Pretty good. Having waxed lyrical about Dekker, I’m now thinking this could be their year again, having had an excellent start to the season as a team. I’m thinking Gesink… But Freire could be up there again, too, although he’s never quite seemed to have had the legs on the Cauberg in the past. Maarten Tjallingii showed he’s clearly on form at Roubaix last weekend, while Paul Martens, as Rabobank’s highest finisher last year, will be hoping to take his chance, too.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
Let’s stick with the Rabobank theme and go for:
1 Robert Gesink
2 Philippe Gilbert
3 Andy Schleck

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