Erik Zabel continues winning ways at Amstel Gold

Germany's Erik Zabel  Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport
Erik Zabels (Telekom) sprint win at the Amstel Gold race ahead of Rabobank riders Michael Boogerd and Marcus Zberg wasnt a surprise, but his commanding, 165-point lead in the World Cup competition is turning heads.

Last year, Zabel didnt place in the top 50 of the World Cup standings or win any of the sprint stages at Tour de France — a rarity for the winner of four consecutive Green Jerseys (awarded to the Tour's top sprinter). But he has reversed course with a vengeance this year.

Along with his win at Amstel Gold, April 22, Zabel also won Milan San-Remo, took fourth at the Tour of Flanders, and was third at Paris-Roubaix (the only classic he didnt score in was the hilly Liege-Bastogne-Liege) to rack up 290 points halfway through the World Cup competition.

To put that in perspective, other riders have won the 10-race World Cup with totals less than 290 points.

"The first five races have been outstanding for me, Zabel said. The world cup surely is in my grasp. I had two riders on my wheel in the run in, but in the finish it was once again a good result."

Oftentimes, a rider who starts out as an excellent sprinter early in his career will grow into an all-around contender; world No. 1-ranked rider Laurent Jalabert, who once was known only for his sprint, is a shining example.

After his impressive spring classic campaign over hills, cobbles and ferocious sprint finishes, Zabel, 29, is close to if not already at Jalaberts level.

The 257K Amstel Gold, which finishes in the city of Masstricht in the Netherlands, features 30 sharp, steep climbs along narrow, twisting lanes.

The first significant attack came at 79 kilometers, and included strong riders such as last years Amstel Gold winner Boogerd, Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Paolo Bettini (Mapei) and Telekoms compact sparkplug Steffen Wesemann. The peloton didnt let the strong move much rope and pulled it back after 20K.

The next move, started at 150K on the Eperheide, the 16th climb of the day, held more promise.

Included among the eight riders were the likes of Marc Wauters (Rabobank), Dimitri Konychev (Fassa Bortolo), Viatcheslav Ekimov (USPS), and world champion Oscar Freire (Mapei).

The group would stay away for 78K before being caught by a huge, 130-rider peloton, a far cry from last years four-man break at this stage in the race, but a favorable outlook for the sprinters.

On the steady, 5K Halembaye climb, the 28th of the day, a group of 17 riders, including Zabel and his teammates Wesemann and Alex Vinokourov, eked out a 15-second lead.

In the charging peloton just behind, pre-race favorite Jalabert crashed in a corner. In the confusion of the pile-up on the narrow roads, the break was able to scratch out a precious few more seconds. More importantly, the chasing pelotons momentum had been snuffed out.

Caught behind the crash with less than 15K to go, an on-form Lance Armstrong was left out of the winning move. He would finish 1:36 down in 39th place, next to Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw.

The gap was still 15 seconds on the final, short, steep Pietersberg climb 5K from the finish when Davide Rebellin (Liquigas), so impressive in the final move at Liege-Bastogne-Liege last week, shot off the front in a last-minute bid for victory.

But Telekom (for Zabel), and Mapei (for Freire) were intent on delivering their sprinters to the line.

With 200 meters to go, Rebellin was caught and Zabel shifted into overdrive for a clear win one-bike length ahead of Boogerd.

"I wished that the climb was longer," Rebellin, known for his honest and fair post-race comments, told Italian sports daily La Gazzetta after the race.

"I knew the last climb and I could only attack where I did because that was the hardest part. My misfortune is that Mapei and Telekom had two riders that they were working for, and one of these was a sprinter.

Zabel, now with 106 career victories, including nine this year, would seem to be the man to watch in the Tour de France sprint stages. And should his teammate by the name of Jan Ulrich arrive on form, the pink Telekom train certainly will be the team to beat come July.

The world cup one day race series takes a break as the big summer tours gear up. Following the completion of the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, the next major world cup race is the German HEW Classic, Aug. 6.

Amstel Gold Race
1. Erik Zabel (GER) 6:13:37 at 41.3 kph
2. Michael Boogerd (HOL) s.t.
3. Markus Zberg (SUI) s.t.
4. Romans Vainsteins (LAT) s.t.
5. Hendrick van Dyck (BEL) s.t.
6. Laurent Dufaux (SWI) s.t.
7. Peter van Petegem (BEL) s.t.
8. Zbigniew Spruch (POL) s.t.
9. Oscar Freire (ESP) s.t.
10. Francesco Casagrande (ITA) s.t.

World Cup Classification after 5 events:
1. Erik Zabel (GER) 290 points
2. Andrei Tchmil (BEL) 125
3. Peter van Petegem (BEL) 122
4. Romans Vainsteins (LAT) 122
5. Paolo Bettini (ITA) 112
6. Johan Museeuw (BEL) 111
7. Zbigniew Spruch (POL) 106
8. Markus Zberg (SWI) 90
9. Fabio Baldato (ITA) 84
10. Michael Boogerd (HOL) 79
11. Tristan Hoffman (HOL) 76
12. (tie) David Etxebarria (SPA) 70
12. (tie) Oscar Freire (SPA) 70
12. (tie) Dario Pieri (ITA) 70
15. Davide Rebellin (ITA) 64

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