There was a rather surprising winner in today’s Amstel Gold Race in the form of Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto. He finished third at this very race in 2010, and in going two places better secured the biggest win of his career. The former Italian national champion resisted late charges from Oscar Freire, Peter Sagan and Jelle Vanendert to take victory. Meanwhile, Philippe Gilbert appears to be back in decent form. He was unable to win his third consecutive beer race but finished sixth.
A slow start
The race took a while to get going, with a nine-man breakaway able to escape and gain a gap of over 13 minutes. There were no big names in the break, with unsurprisingly the likes of RadioShack-Nissan, BMC and Katusha helping to reduce the gap.
Despite being touted as a candidate for the win, Cadel Evans dropped off the back of the peloton early on, and wasn’t able to get back. With around 60km remaining, news trickled through of his retirement, in a disappointing start to his Ardennes campaign. He later confirmed he was suffering with an illness which affected his form.
Evans’ retirement, along with rather amusing rumours of fist fights in the breakaway over where to stop for a comfort break livened up the middle of the race as it continued to wind its way through the narrow Limburg lanes.
Eventually, the undulating course began to take its toll on the leaders. Shortly after the 30km to go mark, there were only two of the original break remaining: Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale and Garmin-Barracuda’s Alex Howes, both riders in their first years as a WorldTour professional.
The Franco-American duo put up extremely stubborn resistance to the rest of the bunch, and managed to stay away until around 10km to go. Meanwhile attacks from the likes of Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank), Simone Ponzi (Astana) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) failed to gain any meaningful advantage, with BMC and Philippe Gilbert in particular lurking ominously at the front of the peloton.
El Gato pounces
Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, winner of Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, attacked shortly after, with Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan locked firmly into his wheel. It was a big move with both riders in good form and more than capable on such terrain. But the rest of the bunch recognised this and they weren’t allowed to open up a gap, as the peloton began to string out even further.
With Joaquim Rodriguez being Katusha’s leader – and indeed the race favourite – for Amstel Gold, when 36-year-old Oscar Freire attacked with under 10km left you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a move to help El Purito. But with the three-time world champion able to open up a 12-second gap it quickly became apparent that he who too had the potential to win the race.
The final push
However, the final ascent up the Cauberg to the finish ended the Spaniard’s hope of victory, as he quickly faded on the tough climb. Meanwhile it was Gilbert leading the charge from the chasing pack. However, it wasn’t long before he too began to fade, eventually giving up and sitting down a matter of metres from the line.
Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug was positioned nicely up the final climb but was wiped out by Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, sustaining a rather painful-looking injury in the process.
Further up front, it appeared it was Sagan’s to lose. But, he too seemed to bizarrely grind to a halt within touching distance of victory – possibly due to the effects of a mid-race fall – leaving the last charge to victory between Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto and Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert – a stage winner in the mountains at last year’s Tour de France (and featured in our Cycling Families series earlier today).
Much to Vanendert’s disappointment, he was beaten to the line by the Italian, with the Lotto rider banging his hand off the handlebars in frustration. Sagan finished third, Freire a very respectable fourth, with Voeckler pipping Gilbert to fifth place.
Afterwards, Gasparotto said his 2010 podium finish had given him the confidence that he could win:
I knew I could do it because I got third here two years ago. This year I remembered that, and I was really concentrated for today’s race because I feel that it is a race for me – perfect for me. My teammates did a good job for me.
Freire had originally been riding in support of Joaquim Rodriguez. However, his Katusha teammate and fellow Spaniard told him on the penultimate Keutenberg climb that he wasn’t feeling great and should make his own move. He told VeloNews.com:
I was very close to the victory. I think another 100 metres less and I would have won. When I put it into the small ring to make my sprint, my legs wanted to explode. The last 400 metres of the Cauberg felt like the hardest climb I have ever done.
The wind was very heavy. It was a strong headwind and it’s impossible to recover when you are attacking alone. Had the wind been slightly different, I think I could have won. I had good sensations and I went for it.
Gilbert explained that he had been forced to attack earlier than he would have liked:
I had to go early though because Freire was in front. I had the impression that no one else would do it, they were looking at me. I did it, but at 300 metres from the finish my legs exploded and I understood it was over.
Much to my delight, it seems PhilGil isn’t as far off the pace as first feared. With a few days until La Flèche Wallonne and a week until Liège–Bastogne–Liège, he can’t defend his Ardennes triple but can certainly turn one of those races into a victory. What’s more, the World Championship road race finishes at the summit of the Cauberg later this year. Surely it’s as good a chance Gilbert will have at victory as he’ll ever get!
As for the winner, Enrico Gasparotto clearly likes the uphill sprints having finished on the podium at Amstel Gold two years ago. I was unsure as to who Astana were riding for today – as, possibly, were they – but it’s a great result for the Italian. It shall be interesting to see if he continues such form in the remaining Ardennes races.
1. Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) 6:32:35
2. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) same time
3. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
4. Oscar Freire (Katusha) +0:03
5. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) s/t
6. Philippe Gilbert (BMC) s/t
7. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t
8. Fabian Wegmann (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:04
9. Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t
10. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t