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Cycling mourns Goolaerts as Classics roll into Amstel Gold hills

Le Belge Philippe Gilbert (c) remporte pour la 4e fois de sa carrière l'Amstel Gold Race, le 16 avril 2017 à Berg en Terblijt
AFP

Maastricht (Netherlands) (AFP) – Cycling’s spring classics roll into the Netherlands on Sunday with a powerful cast of pretenders in the Amstel Gold Race where champion Philippe Gilbert will hope to make up for last week’s flop at Paris-Roubaix.

World Champion Peter Sagan triumphed in the Roubaix velodrome last Sunday with a long-range break from 55km out in a race overshadowed by the heart failure and death of 23-year-old Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts.

Ahead of last Wednesday’s De Brabantse Pijl race, the peloton held a minute’s silence and wore black armbands for their fallen colleague with winner Tim Wellens pointing to the sky in his memory at the finish line.

Sagan’s ambitious long-range attack mirrored those in previous classics races this spring, leading to victory for Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-SanRemo and Nicki Terpstra at the Tour of Flanders.

The Amstel Gold Race, a 262km run from Maastricht to Valkenburg, features an astonishing 35 climbs that make Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde joint favourite with the British bookmakers alongside Sagan.

But Gilbert is aiming for his fifth Amstel Gold title and can count on the Quick Step team that has been a formidable force so far this Spring.

“In my youth I trained around there a great deal, I know these roads like the back of my hand,” said the 35-year-old four-time winner.

“I’ve got over (losing at) Paris-Roubaix and I’m completely ready,” said Gilbert, who had been a pre-race favourite on the cobbles last Sunday but came 15th over three minutes adrift.

The savvy 2012 World Champion previously won here in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and has the chance to equal the record of Jan Raas which has stood since the 1980’s.

Ten years Gilbert’s junior, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe is also thought to have a good chance after coming 7th in 2015 and sixth in 2016 and having come second in four major one-day races.

“It’s a race in which you need to be fully focussed and concentrated,” said Alaphilippe.

– Valverde needs a win –

Sagan won the Gent-Wevelgem before last Sunday’s sublime show of power and technique and is racing the Amstel Gold for the first time in five years.

Valverde has come close to winning here three times and has had better luck in next week’s Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

“Sometimes you need the luck,” Valverde said, when asked about the narrow, winding roads through the green hills.

Race director Leo Van Vliet has changed the course slightly this season.

“We have added in narrower streets to make it more difficult for a team to dominate,” he said. 

Sky’s Polish hope Michal Kwiatkowski, who won here in 2015 will hope to do better than teammate Geraint Thomas who fell heavily on the way to Roubaix last week.

Nibali, Australia’s Michael Matthews — if it comes to a sprint — and the up-and-coming Belgians Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens, and their more established compatriot Greg Van Avermaet, should also be in the mix for this 52nd edition since the race’s inauguration in 1966.

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