Classics season, and our Fantasy Cycling game, heads into Ardennes week for what is typically a hard-fought and exciting trio of races. The action kicks off on Sunday with the Amstel Gold Race in which Philippe Gilbert last year became the first man in more than 30 years to successfully defend his crown. Signs so far this year are that he hasn't recaptured 2011's form, however. Here's our guide to the course and some of the main contenders.
First raced in 1966, the Amstel Gold Race may be the youngest of the Spring Classics but it has risen in stature over the decades and is now the only Dutch race to feature on the UCI World Calendar. Previously held midweek between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and later moved to the end of April, its current slot of the third Sunday of the month sees it open Ardennes Week, in which it is followed by the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The riders who prevail here – and in those other two races – don’t tend to be those who dominate the cobbled Classics; in the past ten years, only one, the former Telekom rider Steffen Wesemann, has secured a podium position in Amstel Gold (2nd in 2006) as well as getting ito the top three in either Paris-Roubaix (2nd in 2002) or the Tour of Flanders (winner in 2004).
Instead, in the Amstel Gold, at least since the finish was moved to the Cauberg in 2003, the riders who come to the fore are either genuine Grand Tour overall contenders, or Classics specialists in the puncheur mould, able to attack on the climbs and stay away, or who have the strength to overcome those who manage to stay with them in the race to the line.
There are plenty of climbs too, in this corner of the Netherlands; 25 of them feature in the 255.1km parcours which starts in Maastricht, some climbed more than once to give a total of 31 ascents during the race.
As with the likes of Flanders or Roubaix, the safest place to be is near the front of the bunch – although in this part of the world, it’s more likely to be street furniture than cobbles that will cause crashes.
There’s been a slight tweak to the closing kilometres this year, with the distance between the penultimate of those climbs, the Keutenberg, and the final one, the Cauberg, shortened by around two and a half kilometres.
That means on the one hand that riders attacking on the first of those have a better chance of staying away, while on the other, any who get distanced by the group will find it harder to get back on.
This year’s edition has additional significance due to the fact that in September, the world championship will be decided here.
The finish line will be in a different position to where it will be on Sunday – September’s race will end 1,700 metres beyond the top of the Cauberg – but this weekend’s race gives those with an eye on the rainbow jersey a chance to size that climb up in a race situation.
One who won’t have that opportunity is the man who has swept all before him over the past few weeks, Tom Boonen, who followed up his Tour of Flanders win at the start of the month with that stunning solo victory in Paris-Roubaix
This time last year, his compatriot Gilbert was many people’s first pick for the Ardennes Classics, and he rewarded that faith by becoming only the second man to win all three in one season. This year, however, following his switch to BMC Racing it looks as though he is struggling to recapture his outstanding 2011 form.
A crash on the Cipressa meant that he wasn’t around to contest the finale of Milan-San Remo last month, but a fortnight ago he found himself dropped as the Tour of Flanders headed towards its conclusion, despite having talked his chances up beforehand.
On Sunday, as he aims for his third consecutive Amstel Gold victory – the record is four, achieved by Dutch rider Jan Raas between 1977 and 1980, and he’d add a fifth title in 1982 – we’ll discover whether that performance across the border in Belgium was a blip, or a reflection of something more serious.
The fact that in the three decades since Raas’s dominance of the race, only two other men have won it twice - besides Gilbert, Swiss rider Rolf Jarmann did so in 1993 and 1998 – shows what a tough race this is to predict. Two men racing on Sunday could also become two-time winners – Damiano Cunego and Frank Schleck.
Who else might catch your eye, then? Well, there are plenty of men riding who’ve come close to tasting success here before – quite literally, since in a race sponsored by a brewery, the winner gets to enjoy some of its product afterwards.
Among those are the two riders who rounded out the podium last year, Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, and GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans, the latter buoyed of course by his Milan-San Remo win.
The man who finished third behind Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara in that race, Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas Canondale, has the strength to get away on those final climbs, as does the man he succeeded to the Vuelta in 2010, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde.
Unsurprisingly, the race tends to bring the best out in the Dutch, although home riders no longer dominate to the extent they once did.
Indeed, the legions of well-fuelled fans who turn out each year have only had two home victories to cheer over the past 20 years, the last being Michael Boogerd’s in 2001, Robert Gesink of Rabobank and Saxo Bank’s Karsten Kroon have both been on the podium in the past.
Their team mate Bauke Mollema, plus the Vacansoleil-DCM pair of Jonny Hoogerland and Wout Poels, are other potential home challengers, while among the foreign contingent, two in-form riders are Thomas Voeckler and Samuel Sanchez, winners, respectively of the Brabantse Pijl and the Tour of the Basque Country.
Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan and Katusha’s Oscar Freire are two riders who have been there or thereabouts in some of the big races so far this season and are strong enough to figure in the finale.
Finally, two big GC riders in the Grand Tours with Ardennes Classics wins already in their palmarès are Tour de France champion Cadel Evans and last year’s runner-up in that race, RadioShack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck; both are potential winners here when at the top of their form, but there is a question mark over their race fitness.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.