Is Amstel Gold set for its first ever Spanish winner?
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Is Amstel Gold set for its first ever Spanish winner?

by Ben Atkins at 5:06 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Spring Classics, Amstel Gold Race
 
Joaquim Rodríguez, Oscar Friere, Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sánchez all vying for victory in the Dutch Classic

joaquim rodriguezIn the Amstel Gold Race’s 46-year history there has yet to be a winner from south of the Pyrénées. The Netherlands - of course - tops the list of nations with 17 wins so far, with Belgium in second place with 11, and Italy in third with five. Riders from Switzerland, Germany, France, Denmark, Australia, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, and Russia have all taken the race, but nobody - as of yet - from Spain.

It could all be set to change this year however, with a number of Spanish riders in the list of likely victors of tomorrow’s race.

After the early, hilly races of the year, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez stands out as an obvious favourite to go better than his second place of last year. ‘Purito’ has been second in all three of the Ardennes races - behind Philippe Gilbert in both Amstel and Flèche Wallonne last year - and he now feels ready to win one.

"Every season I include the Ardennes races in my goals,” he said on the eve of the race, according to Het Nieuwsblad. “Only there is always a better rider.

“Take last year; Philippe Gilbert was almost unbeatable,” he explained. “Right now he doesn’t have his best form. He remains a great champion and competitor with who is always to be reckoned with.”

So far this season, Rodríguez has taken a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, and two in last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco; what might count against him however, is that his eye is a little more drawn south and west towards the two Belgian races of the Ardennes next week.

“The Flèche Wallonne, with its finish on the Mur de Huy, suits me better,” he admitted, “like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but I really don’t mind. They don’t really understand the difference back home between a winner of the Amstel Gold Race or one of the two Ardennes Classics.”

samuel sanchezArguably, the man most likely to deny Rodríguez is compatriot Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who was the one to beat him to the overall prize in Pais Vasco. The Olympic champion also took two stages in his team’s home race - one of which was was the final day’s time trial, which was what gave him the final victory - to add to the one he took in Catalunya two weeks before.

One eye on later races might also count against the Asturian however, although his comes much later in the year. The 34-year-old is looking for success in the Limburg World Championships in September, which will finish just beyond the top of the Cauberg, where tomorrow’s race will finish.

“[Winning] a World championship medal would mean that I had realised all the dreams I’ve had since I started cycling as a child,” he said in Het Nieuwsblad. “I wanted to shine at the Olympics; I did it in Beijing 2008. I wanted the polka dot Jersey in the Tour; I did it last year. I wanted to win the Vuelta al Pais Vasco; I did it last week.

“All that remains is a medal at the World Championships,” he explained. Which is precisely why it I’m interested in riding this Amstel Gold Race. It is a warm-up for the World Championships.”

Valverde uncertain after Catalunya crash; destiny awaits Freire

alejandro valverdeThe Spanish rider that comes to the race with the most uncertainty over his form is Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, who finished third in the 2009 edition; his last appearance in the race. The Murcian took third overall in Paris-Nice in early March - as his team ramped up the pace when the third step of the podium's incumbent, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Levi Leipheimer, crashed - but he himself crashed out of last month’s Volta a Catalunya.

Valverde returned in last weekend’s Klasika Primavera Amorebieta, where he finished second behind Italian champion teammate Giovanni Visconti. He is keen to add Amstel to the Flèche and Liège victories on his palmares, and complete the Ardennes set.

“The Amstel Gold Race is the only one of the trio of Ardennes classics that is still missing from my list,” he said in Het Nieuwsblad. “In 2008 I was third, but a week later I won my second ‘Lieja’. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is still just a little more special for me than the Amstel, but I’ll take what I can get.

“I hope I won’t feel too many aftereffects of the injury that took me out of the Volta a Catalunya,” he continued. Everything felt good In Amorebieta, but that race on Sunday doesn't compare with the these three Classics.

“I look forward to this period in Belgium and Netherlands every year, where the heart beats for cycling,” he added. “That feels good as a rider. I hope to get the victory, although I realise that I will have to beat Joaquim Rodríguez, Samuel Sánchez and Peter Sagan.

“In such a long races you should always take the Schleck brothers into account and Philippe Gilbert.”

oscar freireOf all the Spanish riders lining up in the race, the wildcard is probably Rodríguez’ Katusha teammate Oscar Friere. The three-time World champion has always been one of the better-climbing sprinters and, after his form in the Cobbled Classics - where he took twelfth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, fourth in Gent-Wevelgem, and second in both the E3 Prijs and Brabantse Pijl - feels he has a chance of making the Cauberg finish line with the leaders.

“Joaquim Rodríguez is our leader,” he said in Het Nieuwsblad, “but I have a free role in a strong team. If it’s a group sprint, I'll have a good chance.”

Freire’s best placing in the race was fifth place in 2002, but that was the year before the finish line was moved from the city of Maastricht to where it is now, on the Cauberg. ‘The Cat’ also has his eye on the September World Championships however, where he could break an all-time record.

“I want to perform well because the World Championships is here in September,” he admitted. “It is my last chance to win a fourth world title.”

Should Freire win tomorrow, he would become the first sprinter to take the Amstel Gold Race since Erik Zabel won in 2000; should he win in September, he would be the only rider to have taken four World titles in history.

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