Amstel Gold (and pink)

Eurosport April 2014

Carlton Kirby; “This race is an exercise in simply whittling down every ounce of energy from the riders, as they tackle berg after berg.  It might not be cobbled, but it is a nasty, spiteful little race”

 

At the same time, in locations across the South West, three heads were turned – and the idea was planted.

It may have taken 4 years to evolve from an idea to reality, but it was 4am on an April morning and we (the LVIS self-styled Equipe Des Pavees) were heading east again.  After 3 years of cobbled racing it was time for us to take in some of the super smooth asphalt of the Nederlands and have a crack at the Amstel Gold Race. The weather forecast looked super-fine, and a 400m/650km cross-continental dash lay ahead. In a change to previous years, the winter bikes were left behind and the roof of Barry’s Team Car was festooned with a feast of our finest carbon fibre.

The LVIS Gent Chapter were also heading east, and together with Filipe, Fieke and Johan we were to be joined by Frank and Jan.

We arrived in Maastricht mid afternoon on the Friday, met our new friends and decided to head out for a recce.  We were going to take a look at the Cauberg – the defining last climb, and one which had created legends of the sport. After 10km, we ducked under the Finish Line gantry, past the Valkenburg sign and then straight under the iconic concrete bridge half way down the decent.  We turned at the bottom, and headed straight back up.  At 13% it had plenty to offer, and years in the saddle immediately set the senses on overtime.  “Remember every detail.  The Cemetery on the left; the funny looking church on the right; THAT bridge; and then aim for the skyline”.  It felt OK, but it wasn’t going to feel like that in 24 hours time and any points of recognition were going to help.

We immediately retired to a beer terrace and discussed tactics for the following day.  After making friends with La Chouffe (stable mate of Duvel), we decided to downgrade our 240km entry to 200km. The last 40km had an additional 1100m of climbing and that looked completely unnecessary through the bottom of a beer glass.

Next thing we knew it was 06.00 and we were up to get some breakfast down our necks before sign on.

Casual observations from the start:

Black and Pink is “IN”; there are a lot of riders in Holland; they know how to organise a lot of people; you can never have too many waffles before a ride.

We were greeted at the start by thousands of other riders. It was about 07.30 and some of the 240km riders had already left, leaving the 200km bunch to drift over the line and start the days efforts.  It was a balmy 8 degrees and leg and arms warmers were the order of the day. Immediately there was an issue.  Filipe had lost a brake block somewhere on the way to the start and he headed for the Shimano tent, promising to catch the rest of us up.  Fieke, Frank and Jan headed off to pour their heart and soul into the 150km, and the ride was on.  We settled into a decent sized group, and started to roll through the beautiful Dutch countryside.  The sun was starting to creep over the rolling hills, and we were riding on tarmac that had been laid with a layer of velvet on top.  The Nederlands truly was a cycling nirvana.

There were to be 14 bergs during the parcours.  Some were steady 5%ers for 800m, but others looked a fair bit more nasty.  At 2000m climbing in total, we knew we were in for plenty – and the tough ones were distinctly “back loaded” to ensure we had many Km’s in the legs for the full effect. So when we hit the first – the Guelhemmerberg – we knew it was the first taste of what was to come.  In fact, we were due back over it at 98km as our route looped back through this village so we paid particular attention  Next was the unexpected Bemelerberg – not categorised on our list(!) but nevermind because we were met with the sound of traditional Dutch music booming down the hillside. It is difficult to describe, but think umpah band meets three aging Dutch rappers.  We all smiled our way up that one. After another 30km we were due to hit the only cobbled climb of the day – the Maasberg.  Truly picturesque, it is a 10% climb hemmed in by houses on either side, and beautiful trees in blossom at the summit.  Only we weren’t there…

We were pulling into a feedstation with thousands of other riders, and filling ourselves with more waffles.  The temperature was rising, so we were shedding layers, and filling up water bottles. As we discussed the curious problem with the top tube sticker guide, we were met by the LVIS 150km group. The realisation dawned that we had taken a wrong turn, and we were approx. 95km ahead of where we were supposed to be.  Meanwhile, Filipe was turning himself inside out to try an catch us.  Word came through that he thought we must have done some training this year as he couldnt seem to catch us!

We had little choice but to keep riding, we were about 55km into the ride, and a long way from the finish – but we had no idea where we were or any idea how to change our predicament. So we just followed everyone else.

Like all good rides, with silence came time to think, and with time to think came a solution.  We worked out that not all of the different distances were riding the same course and that if we followed the original 200km route, we would be home in about 30km, leading to an all time shortest LVIS Cobbled Classics spring excursion.  And a bloody long drive to gently pootle round 80km! So we joined the 150km route (which was only 50km in) and would give us enough to dig our teeth into. With new resolve we headed further east.  A regular pattern emerged – Dave got to the top of the climbs first, followed by Johnny, Rus and Johan.  The climbs got longer –  the Loorberg at 1.8km of 8%; the Camerig at 2km of 7% (alpine bends and nice views), and then the climb to Drielandpunt. As we crested the climb, we rode through Holland, Belgium and Germany all in the space of a few hundred meters.

From here the climbs all started to get steeper.  The countryside was never flat, and we were either battling a steady 4-5% up, or rolling through groups of club cyclists. It was indeed wearing us down, with each little rise requiring a dig into the reserves, and each downhill just not quite long enough to get ourselves straight again.  The marshalls deserve a big shout somewhere in this write up as they were awesome.  We never needed to stop – the route was completely traffic free, but where it crossed main roads we had free reign to pile on through. They Made Barry Proud!

And then we were at the bottom of the Eysbosweg. A narrow-ish country lane that peaked at 17.5% in the full glare of the very warm afternoon sunshine.  It wasn’t dissimilar to a regular ride around say north Cornwall, but with the overexcitement of spanking around with about 50,000 other people the energy levels felt less than optimal at the bottom! Soon they were coming in quick succession and its all a bit of a blur with the Fromberg biting hard at 16%. A can of Amstel thrust into Rus’s hand helped deaden the pain! According to the route sticker we had a chance of a bit of breather now, but as we rolled the Keutenberg came into view.  Its not exaggeration to say that it resembled a tube station escalator.  It just shot up out of nowhere.

One minute we are on the flat, the next we are smashing our way down the cassette and trying to negotiate the 20%+ hairpin onto a solid concrete appointment with hell.  Just as the realisation kicked in that this was going to need some kind of serious effort to conquer, Didi the Devil appeared jumping up and down in his usual mad-cap style. Half a wave, and half a smile in his general direction and he shouted those immortal words – “GO VEGAS!” Johnny figured he was once a friend of Barry’s.

And with that lasting thought we rolled (again) for a couple of kms to the bottom of the Cauberg.  In a stark contrast to the previous day, thousands of fans greeted us in the cauldron of bars and restaurants.  The noise was immense, and helped us all dig in for last one time. The support continued all the way up the Cauberg, and those landmarks that we had noted the day before were a blur as we whisked along in a sea of fellow riders all striving towards the finish.

Up over the top and then into a parallel world.  We all secretly think that we could cut it in the final few kms of a pro-race, and that we would never be the one rolling off the front to be passed by everyone else – but this became reality.  The road straightened, and the finish gantry was in the distance. The count down boards were in place, and the speed went stratospheric.  Suddenly everyone wanted to do 60kmh, and we were in the middle of a gallop to the line. Flipping brilliant!

The organisation of this massive day in Holland’s calendar is sublime (52,000 riders out there) and very soon we had parked the bikes and were supping Amstel by the bucket load.

In a final roll of the dice for the day, we had the 10km back to Maastricht to conquer.  This involved rolling down a 2km hill, which seemed a nice gentle way to let tired legs transport us home. However, in Holland you are allowed to ride a moped in a cycle path… Well I say moped, what I mean is the LVIS lead out vehicle. The Amstel took the edge of the aches and pains and soon we were riding in full pursuit (Don’t Try This At Home Kids). As the decent flattened out, we waved the moped off and headed for our new regular bar. As we turned off our various Garmin/Wahoo thingys Johnny had news.  He was third equal (all time) on the downhill moped sector with Bram Tankink! (A big hello to another New friend of LVIS).

A big shout should go to Filipe who finished the 200km course on his own.  Chapeau friend, chapeau!

And then it was race day.

The team busses were parked about 100m from our hotel so we nursed our hangovers in their general direction.  Both the Women’s and Men’s teams were being presented and it was brilliant to see the strength of support for both. Then the moment came in the weekend when we asked ourselves What Would Barry Do? And with that, some of the LVIS magic started to flow. We ducked under the cordon at Aqua Blue and spent a few minutes poking at the 3T bikes and discussing gear ratios with the mechanics; Johnny spent at least 5 minutes discussing tactics and the route with Sir Dave Brailsford (another New Friend of LVIS); we met Matt Stephens and had a chat about GCN before he headed off to the finish (you guessed it – another New Friend of LVIS); and Johnny help a certain Mr Sagan on his way to the podium to be introduced.

Then, like groundhog day we headed off to the Cauberg again.  Only this time we were there to witness two passes of the women’s race, followed by the same from the men’s race.  We situated ourselves initially half down the Cauberg as we needed some LVIS action on the TV.  There is now no doubt in our minds that Chantaal Black would not have won without passing directly under the LVIS flag!  She noticeably increased in speed, and smashed the peloton to bits. A really solid win.

Keen for some more TV action we spent about an hour drinking Amstel and eating chips with mayo/samurai sauce, in order to prepare us to fly the flag again. Using Video Referee technology on our return we are able to report that we out-flagged the Pater Sagan fan club – still making Barry proud!

We then relocated to the top by the Shimano DJ point which was a deeply Dutch experience.  More beer than you can shake a stick at, with a soundtrack that will stay with me to the grave. Think of a tune… No matter how slow or fast, happy or melancholy, loving or loveless and then just whack it together with a happy hardcore soundtrack.  Oh Holland – I like a lot about you, but that was too much!

We then watched the pros battle it out, and Astana played an old fashioned one-two to deliver a solid win by Michael Valgren. Some will say it felt slightly flat as all the favourites sat up to mark each other, but it was a good honest win.  So we headed home again before we knew it, it was our last evening.  We retreated and then treated ourselves to a fine dinner and backed our bags.  We said goodbye to the LVIS Gent Chapter, who once again had done us and themselves proud and headed for bed.  The mad dash home awaited us, and we needed some kip.

Until the next time

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