Amstel Gold - Another classic, but not classic racing
The Amstel Gold Race reveals who might be bouncing back into form and who is being bounced out of contention.
Another weekend, another classic. To be clear I don't mean "classic" in the sense of an exciting race and one that will go down in the annals of cycling history. Instead the Amstel Gold Race was a litmus test for those whose form might be returning.
That said I don't want to take anything away from Enrico Gasparotto from Astana. I would dare anyone out there to say he was your pick for the day! But in that final fifty meters at the summit of the Cauberg he stabbed past Jelle Vanendert and my pre-race favorite Peter Sagan.
While the only action of the day was the final one kilometer climb to the finish line, Amstel Gold showed who was on the rebound.
In pre-race interviews Team BMC Racing's Philippe Gilbert was constantly deflecting about his chances in this hilly Dutch classic, and who could blame him. He is nowhere near the form he had last year and he knows it. But lo and behold, driving the peloton whenever a break got up the road was the red and black of BMC! I almost spit out my morning coffee in surprise.
Then on the final ascent there was Gilbert again and for a few seconds, as he bore down on Oscar Freire, I thought the Belgian might actually win. While he didn't (6th place), it showed that he was coming around to maybe some decent form. So the question I ask - can he bounce back for Liege-Bastogne-Liege?
Speaking of bouncing - Andy Schleck bounced his way to the back of the bunch at Amstel - continuing his underwhelming season - finishing 91st, over five minutes behind Gasparotto. His older brother Fränk declared he was one of the strongest with his 12th place on the day. It looks like those Tony Robbins motivational tapes are working...
But going back to Gilbert, I'll be the first to admit that I've given him a share of professional criticism these past few months. Perhaps this is all behind him and Amstel was the race that has given him better morale for the upcoming Ardennes races. I hope for BMC's sake that's the case as Cadel Evans DNF'ed complaining of a cold. Now, hot off the Team BMC media press machine, Evans is a non-starter at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and instead will be spending time at home recovering from his sinus infection.
In the big picture the Australian's performance in these classics aren't as critical as defending his win in the Tour de France. Sure, getting in the race miles is part of the build-up, but it's better to err on the side of recovery than push through and ruin his July. Because let's face it - at the end of the day potential BMC bike buyers will be motivated by the memory of a recent Tour de France win rather than finishing Liege in the middle of the bunch. And that's what matters at the end of the day - showing team sponsors the love.
Since I brought up the Tour de France allow me some latitude to jump back to the Schlecks. I'm not completely in the camp believing that Andy Schleck will be completely shellacked in July. Sure there's 100 kilometers total of time trialing in this year's race, a discipline that is not his forte, but for The Big Show I think he'll find that form. I'm confident RadioShack-Nissan manager Johan Bruyneel will make sure of that... (awkward silence - and now changing topic)
Like I mentioned earlier, Liquigas-Cannondale's Peter Sagan was my favorite in Amstel Gold Race. He came so close to making me look super knowledgeable rather than the grumpy armchair quarterback that friends and family know me as. While he's hanging up his C'dale until the Amgen Tour of California, it is just a matter of time until he's on the top step of the podium. Let's take a quick look at his results just this season: Several top five placings in the Tour of Qatar and Oman, stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico, fourth in Milan-San Remo, second in Gent-Wevelgem, stage win in Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, and fifth at Tour of Flanders. Yeah, it's going to happen. I suspect that his next stage win isn't that far away - say stage 6 of the Amgen Tour of California, which incidentally finishes in Big Bear. Did I mention he's won in Big Bear before?
On a random note; the official Amgen Tour of California poster is a gritty photo of Mario Cipollini. This was a bit of a head scratcher as the photo was taken when he was a part of Rock Racing - a team the race organizers did everything in their power to make sure weren't part of the stage race. You might remember that the Rock Racing squad was allowed to race, but not until team owner Michael Ball coughed up some sponsorship money to make it happen. Oh those Rock Racing days, they were crazy times...
Another young rider that impressed was Garmin-Barracuda's Alex Howe. The 24 year-old was part of the original break and then when that started to fall apart, he went away with Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale). Hands in the drops, Howe looked motivated. I'm sure we'll see more of him in the future.
In the end Howe was caught on the second to last climb of the day, but still finished in 30th position. Sláinte, young man.
Finally, I saw this interesting article from the London Evening Standard - an interview with Eddy Merckx. Widely considered the greatest bike racer to throw a leg over a top tube, he won an amazing 30% of all bike races he entered. He's quoted in the paper as saying that he believes that the peloton today is 95% clean. Merkcx himself was popped three times for doping, but like many other riders, he tells the Standard he was clean.
Fortunately for Merckx we can't go back and retest samples or chase paper trails of donations to a sport's governing body. We're going on his statements that he was wronged due to incompetence of the testers. These sentences are not to besmirch the legend of Merckx - just stating facts to keep it real as another rider is popped for EPO. This time it's Denis Galimzyanov of Katusha.
The Russian rider's A-sample came back positive for "stupid", err....I mean EPO... Didn't he get the memo that it's all about microdosing? Unless you're a master category racer or competing in gran fondos, no one does detectable doses of EPO anymore. His "B" sample still needs to be analyzed, so this could all be a misunderstanding at the lab. We will have to wait and see.