If I’d been granted a pound for each time someone had said to me last week ‘oh, but at least Holland’s flat’ I would currently be a very rich young woman. I may even be in a position to purchase an Orbea Orca equipped with Dura Ace. Or possibly the large and well-appointed farmhouse on the Urkiola which has been the object of my covetousness these past two years. Tis a common misconception you see, this Flatness Theory. Much of the Netherlands is pancake like, true, but Limburg is NEVER flat. EVER. Not that I’m especially complaining however, for I discovered on Saturday that I appear to go up steep hills, one after the other with relentless regularity, with much more comfort than I thought I might. You see, I travelled to this lush corner of the planet to ride the Amstel Gold Race (Toerversie). And it was awesome.
I’d never really thought seriously about doing Amstel, despite hearing stories about how good it was, until the goading started from my local bike shop. Since I moved into my area of north London last September, Hadron Cycles has been an absolute gem. They spent virtually the whole winter fixing my cross bike (and rolling their eyes before exclaiming ‘what HAVE you been doing?!’) so I got to know them fairly well. They were putting together a Hadron team to ride Amstel and persuaded me that this was in fact an excellent idea. Early on Friday morning we set out in a combination of minibus and car (a Skoda Fabia which contained six bikes AND two people, impressive huh?). There were nine of us all told, Deniz the shop owner, Rachel the Aussie, Will the Chilean Aussie, Pippa the New Zealander, Al who works in the shop, Salva the Valencian who also works in the shop and looks like a proper Spanish climber, Paul and Owen the fellow shop customers, and me. You know me. After many hours of driving plus a stint in purgatory with about a million (caution, may be an exaggeration) French schoolchildren on a ferry, we arrived at our accommodation, a bungalow park a little outside Valkenburg. Now the Dutch enjoy their nice funky modern architecture, but what do these remind you of? Public conveniences anyone? Yes, I thought so.
Inside, the bungalows had everything one needed though, despite a tendency to basicness. Within an hour there was bike stuff everywhere and all manner of tampering and tinkering going on in the Female Bungalow, aka Chez Albertina and Pippa.
Later on that evening we ate so much pasta that we almost burst. Almost literally. After a frankly somewhat fitful sleep I arose to a sunny morning. The shock! The big yellow thing in the sky! So bright! Porridge consumed, Hadron jerseys donned, we left for Valkenburg and the start. We were joined in this anticipatory little 6km ride by about half the Bungalow Park, which was absolutely full of cyclists. Delightful. Upon reaching the town centre it hits you just how big this event is. Organised chaos reigned with people and bikes everywhere, some in teams, some alone, some on eyewateringly expensive machines, others on older and rather rustier ones. And then there was this man. In what circumstances can such tights ever be justified? Must be Italian, said someone, to sage nods all round. It took a while to gain custody of our numbers and transponders, which we’d failed to pick up the night before owing to some crazy traffic on the way round Maastricht, and by the time my increasingly cold fingers had managed to fiddle around with the pesky little plastic cords sufficiently to attach the things to my bike I was more than raring to go.
The rolling start was a little bit of an anti-climax in many ways; we just pottered over the line without much ceremony and suddenly there we were, riding Amstel Gold. I set out with Pippa, having lost a couple of the boys in the chaos and we swiftly started picking people off, integrating ourselves into groups and then hopping into other ones. I was wary of pushing too hard too soon as I’d had a bit of a troublesome hamstring the week before I didn’t want it to explode half way, but it was just so tempting to zoom along, to pull the pack, to feel like a pro. This was the life! We hacked up the first two climbs with abandon, buoyed with confidence at how much quicker we were than many people around us. This surprised me all afternoon; there were an awful lot of youngish men on expensive bikes petering out massively on the steep gradients. I’ve never thought of myself as being a ‘climber’, though I know I’m better now than I ever have been, but I was giving a lot of males a serious chicking and this made me rather sadistically smug! Here I am on the Geulhemmerberg, (1km at 5.8%) the first climb of the day which comes only a couple of KMs in. I’m in black with the white helmet, behind the blonde girl in the blue jersey (that’s Pippa). We got our transponders muddled up at the start, hence the website thinks I’m called Al and that I did 125km rather than 150! The Bemeleberg reared its head at 8.7km and didn’t cause too much of an issue. I’d found a good rhythm quickly and I was content. It’s a long way until the next official climb but in reality there is a lot of up and down even when not shown on the route plan. We kept coming upon steep little stingers which didn’t ‘count’, which we felt was a little unfair. We sped through this section in the one rain shower of an otherwise pretty sunny day but lost each other when Pippa’s bike computer started misbehaving. I rode the rest of the course alone, a battle of girl against gradients.
I can’t truthfully remember which climb was which for many of the remaining ones. Apparently the Loorberg was 1.6km at 5.1% and came soon after the first feeding station. These were incredible, filled with all manner of cakes and biscuits as well as gels and energy drinks. I only stopped at the first one to use the portaloo, grabbed a ginger cake (which I subsequently dropped all over myself at 30mph) and continued on apace, not wishing to break my rhythm. Most of the serious hills came in the second half, with the longest of the day, the Camerig (something like 3.6km at 4% I think, but with some false flats rather twisting the stats on how steep it was in places). The next one that really stuck in my mind was the Eyserbosweg, our first view of the *seriously* steep gradients this course throws up. It starts gradually but then hits 18% for a stretch of its 1.1km at an average of 8.1%. I still felt good. I couldn’t believe how comfortably I was climbing. Obviously some people were much faster but I was surrounded by people puffing and panting and blocking my way! Weaving through them was one of the hardest tasks of the day. Here is a video of me on the Eyserbosweg, in a blue jersey here, having shed my jacket, next to the guy in the luminous yellow half unzipped top. One of my proudest moments of the day came at the top when a fit and wiry looking Dutch bloke pulled up alongside me and said ‘excellent stuff, you climb so silently and your body barely moves! Perfect!’. I grinned like a loon.
It wasn’t until I hit about 110km in that I started to feel a bit dodgy. It wasn’t a hill which did it to me but a long long long straight flat road with a stonking headwind. I had ended up stranded between groups here with nobody to share the workload and died a death. My stomach felt a mess too, for a good 10km or so. Gels sometimes don’t agree with me all that well, and quite a few of those plus some mega exertion proved a non-optimal combination. But I pushed through, upwards again between windy open fields and started to feel better. At 129km I was on the run for home and I felt ecstatic. Then I saw it. The Keutenberg. As you ride through the valley below you espy a tiny little road reaching all but vertically towards the sky ahead of you. Surely they weren’t going to make us go up there? But then I saw the moving people on it. Uh-oh. It was a laugh or cry moment. I laughed. Crying smudges one’s mascara. It wasn’t too bad at the bottom and I got lulled into a certain amount of security, but then I turned the corner and, er, !!!!!! I’d never seen anything so steep. 24% is just stupid. Locals lined the road cheering with encouragement (and perhaps a modicum of sadism?!) and I could see a lot of people walking. Grit your teeth Albertina! Despite the crowding and the general chaos, no way in hell was I going to put a foot down. Several times I had to stop pedalling for a split second to avoid people who were grinding to a halt and somehow find a way around them but avoid them I did and the brute was in my pocket. YES. From there it was a fast run back into Valkenburg. The town centre was heaving with people and it felt just like I was in the race proper. I’d seen it so many times on TV: the narrow street, the cafes and restaurants thronging, the turn to the left and the uphill dash for home. I hit the Cauberg feeling like Vos, if going rather more slowly. This was cycling nirvana. The Cauberg in itself is nothing horrendous but after 150km it stung. I cared little though and pushed for the top. When you reach the flat you can see the finishing arch ahead and I put the hammer down. Done. And. Dusted. The most fun I’d ever had on a bike.
It actually took quite a while to get across the line, with so many people finishing at once. Once you eventually get round the corner there is a medal waiting, and get this it doubles as a bottle opener! We tested it later that evening, quite a lot of times….
I met up with my team mates, in dribs and drabs, in the corporate teams hospitality tent, which was amazing. Endless free food and Amstel! Within about an hour we had all arrived, apart from poor Al who had broken his arm after a touch of wheels 40km from home and ridden on to the finish like a true pro. It proved to be a small break, thankfully, and he can report that the Dutch health service treated him remarkably.
The evening consisted of steak, chips, red wine and beer, in a rocking Valkenburg full of drunk Dutch cyclists. Barmy and wonderful. On Sunday it was hangover time. Oh dear.
Unfortunately the previous night’s exertions meant we, um, did not make it to Maastricht to watch the start of the pro race, or indeed into Valkenburg for their first passage through. We did however pile into the minibus, having repacked all the bikes and wheels, to get to the Gulpenburg in good time. Here are some pictures for your perusal.
And then we all went home. I slept for most of the way. Quite a weekend.
PS, for the geeks amongst you, here is my Strava file!
(Photos are either mine or Pippa's)