Philippe Gilbert will be looking to re-discover some of last years magic on Sunday
The first of the Ardennes classics takes place this Sunday, with a stellar cast looking to succeed Belgium's Philippe Gilbert as winner of the 47th Amstel Gold Race. After Tom Boonen's domination of the Flanders classics, culminating in his stunning breakaway win at last Sunday's Paris-Roubaix, it will be the chance for someone else to steal the limelight.
Boonen cited an inflammation of the foot for his decision to withdraw from a race in which he has never previously participated.
Gilbert has won the Amstel Gold Race in each of the last two years, and also triumphed in La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege to complete a clean sweep of the Ardennes Classics in 2011. But he has moved to play down his chances of another victory this time around.
"I am not setting myself any targets for this spring," the BMC rider told Belgian media after finishing 12th in last week's Brabantse Pijl-La Fleche Brabanconne warm-up race. "My number one objective is to rediscover the kind of form and fitness that I have had in the past."
The notoriously tough 256.5 km course in the southern Dutch province of Limburg starts in Maastricht and ends near Valkenburg just after the challenging Keutenberg climb. There are 31 climbs in all, with the race finishing on the Cauberg, a hill which will also feature on the route at this year's Road World Championships.
After suffering a wrist injury in the rain-hit Brabantse Pijl-La Fleche Brabanconne this week, Andy Schleck is not in great shape just now, but there will be plenty of other leading names making their returns after opting to steer clear of the cobbles.
Andy's older brother Frank cannot be counted out in a race he won in 2006, while Australia's chances of a first win in the event since Phil Anderson in 1983 may rest with Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans. Last year's Tour de France winner Evans - a BMC teammate of Gilbert - should be fresh after winning the Criterium International last month. Gerrans won this year's Milan-San Remo and finished third in last year's Amstel. The GreenEdge man says he should not be considered as one of the favourites but that he is quietly confident as to his team's chances.
"We have a really competitive team at the Ardennes but we're by no means the favourites," he told Cyclingnews.com. "There's a couple of teams there that are really powerhouse teams that have several leaders. We can sort of go away, do our race quietly and at the end of the day I think we'll be right up there and amongst the results. The races are so selective. It's generally the guys who have the best legs at the end of the day that get the results."
But perhaps this could be the year that a Spanish rider wins the Amstel Gold Race for the first time.
Fresh from winning last week's Tour of the Basque Country, 2008 Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez could feature prominently, while Joaquim Rodriguez is another contender after finishing second in the Basque Country.
Alejandro Valverde would love to add the Amstel to his collection of classics wins, having previously triumphed in the Fleche Wallonne and in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
AS FOR TOM BOONEN
Belgium's one-day road race specialist Tom Boonen has pulled out of Sunday's Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands, according to Flemish television. Boonen, who last weekend won the Paris-Roubaix for a record-equalling fourth time to add to victories in the Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders on home turf this season, has an inflammation of the foot, it reported.
In the past, the 31-year-old Belgian has bypassed the Ardennes classics which follow the demanding cobblestone-heavy early-season one-day classics, and his appearance at the Amstel Gold Race would have been his maiden outing in the race. Boonen will likely be back in the peloton for the Tour of California, which kicks off on May 13.