From the Bottom Of The Glass: Amstel Gold Race
Amstel ’17: The cobbles are behind us and the hills of the Ardennes are rearing up on the WorldTour horizon. Peter Easton has been guiding rides over the bergs of the Amstel Gold Race for years with VeloClassic Tours, here are his strongest memories from the not so low-country.
Oscar Camenzind leading Michael Boogerd in the 1998 Valkenburg Worlds
Dutchman Michael Boogerd has probably never seen a fleck of broken glass that hasn’t triggered a nightmare of memories from a cold, wet, October day 18 1/2 years ago. Four kilometers from the base of the of the Cauberg, the signature ascent of the 1998 Road Race World Championships in the small Dutch village of Valkenburg, and six kilometers from the finish line of what looked like a rainbow jersey for the host nation’s hero, Boogerd’s chance of victory slowly drained from his rear tire. A slow leak ruined his title hopes on a day when he surely looked and felt the strongest of the elite breakaway. Alongside Belgian Peter Van Petegem, Italian Michele Bartoli, the Swiss duo of Oskar Camezind and Niki Aebersold and a reborn Lance Armstrong, Boogerd screamed for the neutral service car as he frantically flashed his arm in the air. He tried in vain, but the Dutchman eventually crossed the finish line in sixth place behind fourth placed Armstrong and fifth placed Aebersold. As reporters shoved their microphones into Boogerd’s dirt covered face, his mechanic tapped him on the shoulder and held out the fleck of glass he had pulled from his tire. Victory, alas, eluded him by the tiniest of margins. And while a victory in the Amstel Gold Race on the same roads the following spring may have temporarily softened Boogerd’s nightmare, a world title would elude him his entire career. The race, the weather and the images from that day catapulted Southern Holland, the Amstel Gold Race course and the climb of the Cauberg into cycling’s collective conscious for good that day, regardless of what history told us about the results later.
It seems the most memorable moments and the race’s most indelible images from any spring classic emanate from the weather, and for many, the worse the weather the better the race – at least from a fan’s perspective. But riding in abhorrent conditions, a necessity as a cyclist let alone one in Northern Europe, generates a completely different story that, much like the images from that World Championships long ago, can alter one’s perspective on something. Riding the Amstel Gold Race sportif for the first time in 2005 was one such occasion. A brave crew of eight of us set out on a dark and rainy morning with the foolhardy intention of riding the 200-kilometer course, which included 26 of the race’s 34 climbs.
Ignoring the forecast with shrugs of bravado, the lashing rain quickly determined that our rain capes, booties, gloves and everything else we were wearing would be uselessly bloated with water. The day’s discomfort was led into catatonic levels as the temperature plunged to single digits Celsius. Separated from my riding partners, I wondered, considered and was tempted to take a short cut back to our hotel in Maastricht. The pain of numb fingers and toes raced through my body, which at times shivered uncontrollably as I rode. So desperate to provide some sense of relief, save for quitting, I managed to warm my hands in a way to this day I’ve never repeated. There is truth to the saying desperate times often call for desperate measures.
Eventually, I reconnected with three others from our original crew, like me they were bathed in snot, cow manure and mud. Through hollow eyes and shivering breath, we stared at each other, no one speaking, as our spirits sank, though remained unbroken. There comes a point when sheer will outweigh rational thought; when the specks of determination coalesce to blanket your mind from distraction; and the limits of pain, that door into the threshold we know so well as cyclists, is opened just a bit and we decide to step through it. Inside that chamber, a sanctified Amstel Gold Race remains. Dry, sunny days in the years following have added color to the grey images from that first year, the blossoms of spring meticulously coloring the hills, painting the fields and adding warmth that personifies the region, the people and the towns. Perhaps the proverbial journey through hell provides better appreciation for what lays on the other side.
Limburg is an aberration in a country whose landscape is criss-crossed with canals, bridges, dykes and wind swept tulip fields. For those who say Holland is flat means they have never been through this colorful area with its verdant green hills, brightened yellow when rape flower fields are blooming, lining narrow roads leading through an endless series of charming and obsessively manicured villages and neighborhoods. Its capital, Maastricht, is a 2,000-year-old city that energetically marries its historic roots with the avant-garde. 15 kilometers away, the village of Valkenburg is a summer vacation paradise, the satisfaction of a strikingly scenic bike ride washed down with a Gulpener or Leeuw beer in one of the dozens of cafes squeezed between an eclectic mix of international restaurants and shops, all surrounded by authentic old world charm. So popular is this area for Dutch cyclists, it has hosted five world championships and has effectively become the epicenter of cycling in Holland.
The orchestration of climbs that comprises the finish of the Amstel Gold Race may not initially strike fear into the minds and legs of cyclists unfamiliar with them. But the neatly packed finale clearly indicates this is as difficult a finish as there is in cycling. Narrow, steep and in rapid succession, this six-climb recipe mixes up a potent cocktail that suits very few, and satisfies only one. Climbed individually, or in a succession stretched across a greater distance would have far less impact, and the narrow roads demand as much attention going down as they do strength going up. The Gulperberg, Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg and Fromberg appear over 13 kilometers, with average grades on the Gulperberg and Eyserbosweg topping 8 percent, and maximum grades reaching twenty percent. These 4,400 meters of climbing sets the stage for the Keutenberg and Cauberg, the transformative link that takes the race out of the shadows of farm fields and onto the blanketed streets of Valkenburg, proudly draped in orange as if prepared to announce the arrival of the Royal Family, one of the few moments in this nation that can equally draw such a crowd, create such anticipation and produce such hysteria. A Dutch victory, missing in this new century, would pronounce a regal ascension for the man worthy of assuming the crown, the new king of Dutch cycling.
The Keutenberg is the penultimate climb, and reeks of the iconography that makes the Spring Classics so great. Long (1700 meters), steep (20 percent) and narrow means it has the potential to stage the final selection before the remaining eleven kilometers to the Cauberg. Both climbs have the potential to rival any Classic as the symbol of its race. For the Cauberg, the numbers don’t lie – 255.5 km of racing done, 1500 meters to go, full on to the finish, which is now in Berg en Terblijt, two kilometers after the top. This has succeeded in stretching the finale a bit, and keeps the riders honest to not save it all for the final climb, but for a possible final sprint.
Finally, and most significantly, it is the unique atmosphere of a race that is ultimately what creates the attraction and appeal. The atmosphere on Paris-Roubaix Sunday is dispersed across the pavé, as transient participants and their enthusiasm leads a viewing parade over the barren fields of Northern France. The Tour of Flanders may never escape the iron grip of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, all too briefly one of the most exciting moments in years past, but it is trying with the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Milan-Sanremo packs all of its Italian flair onto the Via Roma in a city that pays more attention to beach goers. The gauntlet of La Redoute is the crown of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the man whose name is painted 300 times on its slope its perpetual king and favorite son. These are a celebration of the iconic elements, the centerpieces that define the term “Classic”.
Only Michael Boogerd knows if he himself ever passed through that door; slipped into a chamber that blocked the sound, the distractions, the discomfort and instead revolved in a brilliance of color. His chance at a rainbow jersey slipped through fatigued legs and a fainting will a year later on the Torricelle climb high above the city of Verona, his palmarès from his final three years whitewashed from history. Much like life, there are no shortcuts, no handshakes with the devil that won’t return to haunt sleepless nights. Strength and luck, both good and bad, share the responsibility of shaping a race’s outcome and defining or shaking a rider’s confidence. And while a rider can work to control the former, it’s only at what is the most opportune or inopportune moment that the truth is told. And there is only one chance to get it right. And this, I believe, is the essence of the Amstel Gold Race.