Thursday 10 May 2012

Amstel Gold Sportif: Getting Really Damp in the Limburger Alps

As one of the very few (12,000?) successful lottery winners allowed to participate in the sportif version of the Amstel Gold race, I was of two minds about the event.  Thrilled to be included in the most recent Classic race, established only in 1966, and given the chance to ride a part of the course of the Netherlands’ most importance cycling event, I was also concerned about the very narrow roads and the climbs, particularly so early in the season.  My training efforts had come to naught in Spring, with only 300 kms or so on the road, but I figured that I had all day to finish the 150 kms of the Amstel Gold sportif.

So, this is what a Qashqai is!  They changed the name for Australia since they were worried the Aussies would nickname it "Cash Cow"

Leaving on Friday the 13th afternoon in April, I went to Sixt to get my wheels for the weekend.  The car rental people had wanted to give me an automatic but couldn’t find one but they said they would make it up by letting me have a better class of car than the VW Golf I had requested.  Since I thought it would be good to have some space, I ended up with a little Nissan diesel SUV which was built in England and rejoices in the model name of Qashqai, which is not as hard to pronounce as it looks.  The name apparently derives from a Turkish nomadic tribe.  The car had 800 km on it so I was determined to be as careful and not repeat the scraping-on-the-narrow-wall incident ($$$) from my last rental adventure.  My bike and baggage fitted in with plenty of space and away we rolled.

First stop was Aachen where I collected the Thin Man, who had taken the train from Berlin.  I was looking for him in front of the station and expecting to see his bike, but I had forgotten all about it being equipped with S&S couplers to make it transportable, so he walked up to me just with two pieces of luggage and we were quickly on the road again.

We were staying in a holiday resort place in Mechelen which actually looked to me like a suburban townhouse development in many places in North America.  We had a three-storey unit which was rather narrow as when we sat in the kitchen on the ground floor we had to put the bikes outside, as we discovered when the Thin Man built up his bicycle.  It is an interesting operation to watch and I am always impressed that the bicycle goes back together.  Travelling with bikes is always awkward at best but I would not trust my ability to reassemble something as complex as it appears.  The Thin Man told me later that during the ride one of the couplers had started to loosen up so I guess it is a good idea to carry the special wrench all the time.

Next on the plan was to drive to Valkenburg, which the GPS said was 13 kms away to pick up our start packages.  This was where our event would start and finish on Saturday.  We jumped into the Qashqai (Nissan markets the car under a different name in Australia as they were worried that the Aussies would call it “Cash cow”) and the nav system told us it was only about 14 kms but that it would take more than 30 minutes to get there.  I soon realized why as I gained experience on Dutch roads, which are designed to terrify foreigners driving strangely-named big fat SUVs, which would be mini-SUVs anywhere else.  The roads are basically a very wide single lane, with bike lanes marked on either side.  You drive happily in the middle until you see another car coming, in which case you pull over to the right and drive partly on the bike lane.  If there is a cyclist there–and the Netherlands does not lack for them–you just slow down and wait.  This required some extra caution but it also meant that our speed was about the same as it would have been going by bike.

We passed an interesting castle or two and then finally arrived in Valkenburg.  Our first attempt at parking actually put us on the far side of town so we figured out more precisely where we needed to be and drove down the even more narrow streets of the old town, weaving gently between masses of racing cyclists.  If Amstel Gold does indeed allow 12,000 riders for its tourist event, they were all coming to register with us.

We found a good parking lot after moving through the masses and made our way to the sports centre where the registration was taking place.  There were lots of banners for Amstel Gold beer and piles of empty cans and a full bar.  The Specialized bike people were in evidence and had several of their top bikes, including a Tarmac SL4 belonging to Aleksandre Vinoukourov of Team Astana, a McLaren Venge (MSRP is, I think, US$ 15,000) at the top of the stand, along with a Shiv time trial bike from Team Saxo Bank.

There were lots and lots of people but the ladies manning the registration area were wonderfully organized and in only a few moments we had our registration kits, which included a number for the handlebars which included an RFID chip, a larger number for our backs, various fasteners, route cue sheets, maps and instructions discouraging us from “wildplassen,” or urinating in public places.

On the way out we were met by two lovely tall Dutch ladies with beer coaster dresses and hats representing Amstel Gold beer.  I had my picture taken with them and we were provided with two cans of Amstel’s latest brew.  It is called “O.O” because it has, well, no alcohol.

Back into the Qashqai and down the road we went in search of food.  Cyclists need to stock up on lots of eats and many of those 12,000 expected cyclists had shown up at about the only food store we saw enroute, a Spar located close to the Brand brewery, since all the bananas except for three sorry-looking ones were left.  We did get some wonderful cheese, the makings of a basic pasta dinner, milk, cereal and some other healthy things, along with some very unhealthy ones, such as the famous “stroopwaffels,” the unavoidable and irresistable Lowlands cookies which must have a great deal of honey in them.  I saw that potato chips were 2 Euros for a big bag so we bought two of them only to have the nice lady at the cash tell us that they were actually three big bags for 2 Euros, so we grabbed another one.

We got back to Mechelen without further incident and got our housekeeping organized.  Soon we were joined by our third rider, Thomas, who came in from Krefeld.  After loading up on dinner and enjoying some of the Maisels Weisse beer I had brought, we had a long discussion about how we would get to the start on Saturday.  Thomas, who was going back to Krefeld directly after the ride, said that he would drive his car over.  The Thin Man was leaning towards riding the 11 or 12 kms to the start and I was debating it myself but finally thought that if the weather was going to continue to be so cold that extra distance so early on would be quite unpleasant.  In the end it was decided to go with both cars and find a reasonably close parking space instead of fighting our way through traffic to the start line.
the Thin Man and Thomas, ready to roll!
A too short night’s sleep and we were up at 5:30 to eat breakfast and get our gear packed.  It was bitterly cold and as we drove to the start I felt that we had made the wise decision to go by car.  We found a huge parking lot just on the outskirts of Valkenburg that I had noticed the day before and there was plenty of space.  The challenge lay in getting enough coins together to buy a parking ticket for the entire day but thanks to some helpful Dutch riders who could explain the system it was pretty easy.  On the bikes and we rode through the old town about 2 kms to the start line, passing the registration place and then joining a huge throng going through the inflated arches marking the start.  There were photographers all over the place, as well as automated video systems, as we were to learn, along the entire course.  We passed over a timing mat, smiled for the photographers and were on our way at last: the long-awaited Amstel Gold sportif!

The Thin Man, an enthusiastic racer and a good climber, was off to a fast start and rode at his own tempo up the first hill, about 3 kms into the ride, and that was the last we saw of him.  I tried to keep Thomas in sight but with the masses of riders around it was not so easy and I pretty quickly accepted that in an event like this everyone has to ride their own pace.

The weather had warmed up a little but it was still overcast and cool which, given the number of little hills we were constantly going up and down, was not such a bad thing.  My general impressions of the event: very narrow, twisty roads with lots of “street furniture” in the way that required some vigilance to avoid; huge numbers of very fit-looking riders, overwhelmingly Dutch and abnormally tall; impressive numbers of very fit-looking female Dutch riders, who easily overtook me at will.  Dutch riders were sometimes a bit overconfident in their bike handling as more than once someone would pass me then immediately cut in front, forcing me to brake.  At times the roads were so narrow that they actually were more like riding along through sunken ditches.  Auto traffic was fairly limited and very respectful.

I felt that things were going pretty well, considering my limited preparation.  Some of the hills had big numbers on them for the professional event and although we were riding them somewhat out of order, I contemplated that fact that we would ride 12 and the pros 31 yet somehow I was sure we were riding far more than 12.  Of course, here in the Limburger Alps a lot of the bits of landscape I considered hills were not even counted.  It was going to be a long day after all...

At just over 50 kms we came to the first food stop, where I quickly caught up to Thomas.  In addition to the usual bananas and energy drinks, there were lots of waffles to enjoy and I cheerfully gorged myself.  But not wanting to get cold meant getting back on the bike and continuing.  My left leg was a bit sore but otherwise things were going quite well.  I did notice that I was not drinking enough and resolved to get some more fluids in.

Most people were riding good racing bikes, although there were also a few mountain bikes in the mix.  At one point we passed an older Dutch gentlemen returning from his shopping on his city bike.  He was moving quite well but I was still somewhat surprised when he passed us on the next long descent.  But I figured he was carrying some additional weight plus knew the road well but while we passe him at the beginning of the next climb he wasn’t going to let that happen and managed to ride past us–uphill.  Ah, the Dutch!

My enjoyable Saturday ride was threatened at around 80 kms as we rode though some light rain showers but these passed, to my relief, and soon it was dry again.  The next highlight was probably riding into Belgium briefly and then beginning a climb to the highest point in Belgium, marked by an observation tower, followed very soon after by the highest point in the Netherlands, marked by an observation tower.

But the fun did not last for much longer: at 100 kms the heavens opened and for the next 50 kms I would “enjoy” one of my most miserable cycling experiences.

Sure, nobody picks Holland as a travel destination because of the fine weather but this was ridiculous.  The rain poured down, cold and relentless, and many cyclists stopped under overpasses or in bus shelters.  After fifteen minutes I was thinking I could not get much wetter so I thought it just better to press on and finish the stupid ride.  Having won my place in the event through a draw, I was not feeling much like a lottery winner as the rain blasted us.

But wait: what’s this?  Turning a corner into a climb we were not only greeted by a ferocious headwind but by hail pelting our faces.  It was painful and I could feel my upper lip and cheeks swelling from the impact.  At least everyone looked as if they were suffering as much as I was!

I had done quite well on the hills so far but a sign indicated that I was now about to meet the Keutzenberg, advertised as the “steepest hill in Holland.”  That may not sound like much but I quickly discovered after the 4% grade at the start that a 22% grade is just that, wherever you are.  I was already getting very tired from the cold and my legs just wouldn’t do their stuff so I had to suffer the indignity of pushing my bike uphill for a few hundred meters.  I was not the only one so humiliated although the very tall, very skinny, very well-trained riders passing on the left gave me no comfort even though they were hurting too.

That bit of hell passed, back on the bike but now I did not do much more riding in the big chainring.  My soaked gloves and tights and freezing feet were not improving my mood and the next stretch of road, a wide and busy regional road past flat farmland, was fantastically dull.  Now it was time to call the last reserves of strength as I was down to the last 20 kms of the ride and was certain I would prevail.

The rain did not let up at all as I approached Valkenburg and the famous Cauberg, which the pros ride something like seven times in all for the Amstel Gold race.  The route takes you around the town as the Cauberg is actually on the outskirts.  I was very tired and wet and cold as I began the climb but in a surprisingly good mood now.  At 400 m to go I got a bad cramp in my leg and had to stop and rub it out and then at 200 m it happened again, but on the other leg.  I finished off my last water as I stood on the course, got back on the bike and summoned my strength for my Big Sprint Finish across the line.

I saw a cyclist in a white rain jacket ahead and to my left and as I overtook him with a last burst of speed I realized it was my friend Thomas, so I held back a bit and we rode across the line together.  It was a huge relief to be done and we were directed off the course and towards some tents.  We received our medals (which hilariously double as beer bottle openers!) and as we came to the big tents where entertainment was in full swing, we both decided that the last thing we needed was a Dutch disco.

To get back to our cars we had to loop around the town again and follow part of the course downhill once more.  I lost Thomas and then as I was riding to the car I became confused and was unable to find the parking lot.  I went back to the Old Town to try to retrace our path from the morning but I was so cold and wet I could not make my brain work very well.  I did have my cellphone and was able to call the Thin Man, who was already back in Mechelen, but the effort of pressing the keys with my violently shaking hands was huge.  I also got a call from Thomas, who was in the parking lot and wondering where I was.  He gave me directions and I got back on the bike and headed down the same road I had been on before.  If I only would have gone an extra 200 m the first time I would have found the car!

Anyway, I stripped off some of my wet gear, put the bike in the back and then sat in the car with the heater turned up all the way for a good 15-20 minutes.  After I stopped shaking I was able to put the Qashqai into gear and drive back uneventfully to Mechelen.

The Amstel Gold sportif is extremely well-organized (except for the weather, sadly) and for the most part takes you through very charming landscapes.  Not only we were photographed and videoed along the way, our times were taken for each individual leg and people could follow our suffering from home.  I had a good start with the first leg averaging 23 km/h but then as the weather turned and the hills increased my speed dropped until my final time, including two food stops and a few photo stops, gave me an average of 17.4 km/h.  The route is on my GPS and I will go back to Valkenburg to ride the course again (and beat the Keutzenberg!) when we have better weather.  Still, I would recommend participating if you can “win” the lottery too.

After a very good night’s sleep, I awoke with a much more positive attitude and after the Thin Man and I gorged on a huge breakfast, we took our somewhat-cleaned bikes out to watch the pro race go by.  Although it would go through Mechelen three times, we picked a nearby hill which would be more interesting than a flat fly-past at speed.  Joining us was a fellow-cycling blogger from Australia, Sandra, whose blog I have read for a number of years and enjoyed but I had never had the opportunity to meet her.  She has been travelling with her husband Alberto through Europe with a motor home, taking in all the great races and riding famous routes.  It was great to finally meet her and Alberto and after making contact in Mechelen we rode up the nearby hill and awaited the peloton. 

German speakers from Australia and Canada meet in the Netherlands! 

A small breakaway group of about ten riders tore past us at a speed I do not recall doing at the same rate the day before on this same hill and some 12 minutes later the main pack followed.  I was struck, once again, by how narrow the roads are, especially with a surging peloton going by.  After all the team cars had gone, we rode back down the hill and went into a restaurant in Mechelen for some good solid Dutch food and where the Thin Man, who is fluent in German but less so in Dutch, ended up with something completely different than he thought he had ordered.  No matter: we all had a good time, first with eating together and then rushing outside to see the breakaway and peloton go by once again through the main road in Mechelen.

I managed to even make a short video for the blog, showing the action on the hill as well as on the flat in Mechelen:

It was bitterly cold and we all felt that was enough spectating for the day so we took our leave and the Thin Man and I returned to our apartment, packed up our gear and did the short drive back to Düsseldorf.  The next day, Monday, the Thin Man had to leave for appointments in Cologne and Bonn and I had to go to the office but that evening I was back in the Qashqai and driving westwards again, this time to Belgium and the Fleche Wallonne sportif ride on Tuesday.  But that’s another story!

Here is the Amstel Gold sportif course: very very complicated!

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