2012 Amstel Gold Race: The Top 5 Contenders for Glory
Tomorrow sees the 47th running of the Amstel Gold Race, kicking off the Ardennes classics week and providing a good indicator of the favourites for Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The riders will battle up and down 256.5 km and more than 30 climbs on their way to the famous 1.2-kilometre finish up the Cauberg.
A slight change to this year's course means the riders will have less time to prepare for the Cauberg. The distance between the penultimate climb, the Keutenberg and the final climb has been shortened by around two kilometres.
Belgium's Philippe Gilbert is looking to become only the second man in history to win three Gold Races in a row. The last man to do so, Jan Raas, won four on the trot between 1977 and 1980 before adding a fifth in 1982.
However, he will face tough competition from an extremely strong field. Former winner Frank Schleck could fancy his chances, and it seems only a matter of time until 22 year old Slovakian Peter Sagan wins a big classic.
Some of the biggest names in the peloton will be on show. Tour de France favourites Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck will be riding, but it is unlikely that they will pose much of a threat. Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez is in great form and will fancy his chances of a high finish.
So who will come out on top? Here are the top five contenders to take victory in the 2012 Amstel Gold Race.
Have I missed someone out? Comment below.
Many people's favourite to win in 2012 is Katusha's Joaquim Rodríguez.
Last year the Spaniard finished just two seconds behind Philippe Gilbert in second place, and he will be going all out to make it to the top of the podium.
Rodríguez excels over short climbs, which makes the Gold Race layout seemingly perfect for him, and he is coming into the race in fine form. He took two stage wins and finished a mere six seconds overall behind Samuel Sánchez in the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month.
Comparisons have been drawn with the stage win Rodríguez claimed in Tirreno-Adriatico and the style of the Gold Race course.
There is a nagging doubt with Rodríguez that by now he should have won in the classics but still hasn't. The longer it goes on, the harder that run is to break; could Rodríguez just be the classic's "nearly man"?
After an absolutely stunning year in 2011, Phillipe Gilbert has struggled to recreate that form in 2012.
Since his move to BMC, Gilbert hasn't been much more than an afterthought in the big races. He finished a lowly 87th in Milan-San Remo, 7:43 minutes off the pace.
He then played down his chances for the Tour of Flanders, living up to his own expectations with a 75th-placed finish.
Could the Belgian be coming into form at exactly the right time, though?
In Wednesday's Brabantse Pijl, Gilbert looked like he was riding himself into some form, looking good on his way to a 12th-placed finish.
The Belgian has won two Gold Races in a row and it would be a brave man to count him out for another victory on the Cauberg.
2008 Gold Race winner Damiano Cunego will once again be one of the favourites for success this weekend.
The Italian has had a solid, unspectacular start to the 2012 season. He finished fourth overall at the Tour of the Basque Country and second in the Gran Premio di Lugano, behind Liquigas rider Eros Capecchi.
Cunego knows what it takes to win the race and it could be the Little Prince's day once again.
It has already been a fine year for Simon Gerrans and many think that it will only get better tomorrow.
The Milan-San Remo winner also took home the trophy in the Tour Down Under and fancies his chances in the Ardennes classics.
He told Cycling Weekly that, "If I stick to my guns, soon enough I'll be standing on top of the podium in one of" the Ardennes classics.
Last year the Australian took third place in the Amstel Gold Race, and after his early season form, he could be about to improve that position.
Finally we have Movistar's Alejandro Valverde.
Following his two-year ban for his involvement in Operación Puerto, Valverde has come back as good as ever.
In the Tour Down Under, his first race back, he claimed a stage win (beating Simon Gerrans in a sprint) and finished second overall. He has also claimed overall victory in the Vuelta a Andalucia and won stage three of Paris-Nice.
It would never be wise to bet against a former winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and on current form, Valverde has to be considered one of the favourites.
It is worth noting that a Spaniard has never won the Gold Race, so could this be the year to change that?