A race named after a beer?

Of all the major races that make up the top tier of the professional cycling calendar there are relatively few which have not been won by either Stephen Roche or Sean Kelly back in the eighties. Roche was a thoroughbred stage racer while Kelly was an unstoppable all-rounder capable of victory on almost any terrain. Between them, they had all the bases covered.

Indeed, Roche had this to say in his book, The Agony and the Ecstacy:

When people compare what I have won to what Kelly has won my reaction is to ask them not to compare but to combine. Instead of asking what each has won, it is better to put our victories together and say, ‘Here are two Irishmen who between them have won almost every race in world cycling’.

So, not to compare, but to combine, between them they won all three of cycling’s Grand Tours. Roche achieved the Giro/Tour double in 1987 and Kelly won the Vuelta in 1988. Due to the fact that the Vuelta was held in April back then, Kelly’s victory meant that Irish riders were the current champions of all three Grand Tours at once. They also won Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al País Vasco, Tour de Suisse and the Criterium International.

A golden era for Irish cycling

With respect to one-day races, apart from Roche’s victory in the 1987 World Road Race Championship, Kelly shouldered all of the responsibility for victories. He won Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liége-Bastogne-Liége, Tour of Lombardy, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours. Most notably, he failed to win the Tour of Flanders, a race in which he finished second on three separate occasions.

Recently on Eurosport, Kelly unsurprinsgly admitted that he would be more than willing to trade one of his victories in Paris-Roubaix to have the Tour of Flanders on his palmarés which would have completed the set of victories in all five monument classics. This is something only three men have ever achieved, Rik van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck, all Belgians. But there are other major one-day races which Kelly failed to win throughout his career.

Unlike the cobbled classics in which Kelly was the master, the hilly Ardennes classics provide terrain where both him and Roche could excel. These three races signal the one week in the year where it is commonplace for Grand Tour contenders and one-day specialists to lock horns in the quest for victory. We are treated to the unusual spectacle of the likes of Alberto Contador, Frank Schleck, Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans racing against riders such as Philippe Gibert, Damiano Cunego and Alexandr Kolobnev.

Cunego, Gilbert an Schleck all in action in last year's Amstel Gold race. (via cyclingnews.com)

As such, one would think that Roche and Kelly should have cleaned up in the Ardennes in the eighties, but this wasn’t the case. Kelly won two editions of Liége-Bastogne-Liége in 1984 and 1989. Neither rider ever won either Amstel Gold or Fléche Wallonne. But that is not to say they never came close. I’ll stick to Amstel Gold for this post and move on to Fléche Wallonne later in the week.

In the Amstel Gold Race, Kelly once finished on the podium when he took third place in 1980 behind Jan Raas and Fons de Wolf in a sprint from an 11-man group which included Bernard Hinault and Hennie Kuiper. Kelly has also finished fourth, sixth and 12th here over the years.

Ireland’s best year in this race came in 1982 when Roche came second, again behind Jan Raas and Kelly finished only slightly further back in fourth place. A group of six riders were together approaching the final kilometre. The group was composed of Raas, who was aiming for his fifth victory in this race, Phil Anderson, Gregor Braun, Hennie Kuiper along with Kelly and Roche.

Raas jumped in the final kilometre and got a gap as the rest of the breakaway looked at each other, each not wanting to be the guy who wastes energy closing Raas down. Roche then attacked and tried to catch Raas as the remaining four riders once again did not react. Unfortunately, Roche couldn’t catch Raas and finished in second place two seconds behind the Dutchman, as Kelly, five seconds further behind, was narrowly beaten in the sprint for third by Gregor Braun. (For the cycling nerds, highlights of every edition of the Amstel Gold Race are available on the official website).

Jan Raas beating Stephen Roche in the 1982 Amstel Gold Race

1982 remains the closest Ireland has ever come to a victory in the Amstel Gold Race. So what are the chances of that changing this year?

Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and Matt Brammeier are all on the provisional startlist to ride the race this Sunday. This is the first time Ireland has had three entrants since 1991 when Kelly, Roche and Martin Earley took part (finishing 27th, 72nd and 33rd respectively).

Having completed his first ever Paris-Roubaix last week, Irish champion Brammeier takes part in his first Ardennes classic this Sunday. As a rider more suited to time trialling, echelon riding and cobbled classics, the hills of the Ardennes will be an enormous task for Brammeier who will be employed as a domestique on his HTC-High Road team.

On paper, both Roche and Deignan are suited to racing in the Ardennes. Although there is no official Under-23 Amstel Gold race, as younger riders, they both took part in the Espoirs version of Liége-Bastogne-Liége in 2004 as they made up half of an Irish national team along with former An Post-Sean Kelly riders Páidí O’Brien and Tim Cassidy. Roche finished an excellent eighth and Deignan finished an equally impressive 11th, both in the same group 1’46” behind eventual winner Branislau Samoilau, now of the Movistar Team.

As professionals, this promise of ability in the Ardennes has never really transpired. Roche has taken part in the Amstel Gold Race in the past three years managing 57th in 2008 before abandoning the race in 2009. He took his best placed finish here last year with 33rd. Deignan hasn’t fared any better, abandoning last year and ending up in 81st the year before. It must be said that while Roche has been afforded the opportunity to ride for himself, Deignan has been at the service of Carlos Sastre, Xavier Tondo and Xavier Florencio.

Having finished in 10th place in the recent Paris-Camembert, Roche is finally showing some sign of form this year. He will be challenging for leadership duties of his AG2R team with Martin Elmiger and Rinaldo Nocentini. The Swiss champion Elmiger will be riding the race for the 10th time which makes him by far the most experienced Amstel Gold rider on the team. He finished in the top 20 in both 2007 and 2008.

Roche will also be jostling for leadership of the team with the Italian Rinaldo Nocentini, who missed the race last year as he was recovering from a broken leg, but he finished 22nd, 13th and 24th in the three preceding years. The rest of Roche’s team is rather inexperienced. Christophe Riblon, although 30 years old, has only ridden the race twice and didn’t finish either time. Blel Kadri, Mikael Cherel and Maxime Bouet have all only competed once and Guillaume Bonnafond will be making his début in the race.

In terms of appearances in Amstel Gold, Deignan’s Team RadioShack is even less experienced. With two appearances in the race, along with Chris Horner, Deignan has the most participations of the eight-man team that will race this Sunday. Although Deignan may be suited to riding on the Ardennes and has raced Amstel Gold more times than six of his team mates, there are plenty of riders on the team who have shown significantly better form this year than Deignan.

Horner himself recently finished runner up in the Volta a Catalunya and actually finished 10th in the Amstel Gold race last year. Gregory Rast will be taking part for the first time since 2004, but he is coming to the race off the back of an incredible fourth place at Paris-Roubaix. There’s also the young Belgian rider Ben Hermans who recently finished on the podium of the GP Pino Cerami and ended Brabantse Pijl in 12th. Hermans also took a fourth place in the Liége-Bastogne-Liége Espoirs in 2006 which suggests he may be suited to the Amstel Gold race.

So will there be the first Irish winner of the Amstel Gold race this weekend? Probably not. Neither rider are likely to be their team’s leader. Roche is still building after an early season injury, and Deignan is struggling for form having been under raced by Johan Bruyneel. Consequently, neither have the form to challenge in a race of this stature this time around. But let’s not rule it out for the future.

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