Amstel Gold Weekend 2016: The Report
After having done the Tour of Flanders Sportive last year, Joe and I decided that we wanted to do another Spring Classic because the atmosphere is so fun and it’s great to do a sportive outside of the UK. This year, my preference was for a Spring Classic with fewer cobbles because I’m still suffering from (phantom) wrist pain whenever I hear *that* word!
We entered the lottery for places in the Amstel Gold Sportive. The event is located near Maastricht, in the Limburg region of Holland, a new destination for us. The deadline for entering the lottery is October 31st and we found out in early November that we were successful. There are six different distances from which to choose—240 km, 200 km, 150 km, 125 km, 100 km and 60 km. It is ‘hilly’ but it was hard to estimate how hilly. We decided to opt for the 125 km distance since it was advertised as having “1461 HM” of climbing and we did not know how many +75 mile rides we would be getting in over the winter.
We travelled to Holland on Thursday, April 14th via Eurotunnel, with our bikes on the back of the car. The journey door-to-door took 6 ½ hours, with some significant traffic around Brussels. But all was soon forgotten after we checked into our hotel and had a nice, cold lager—the local brew—Lindeboom. In fact, I never drank a single Amstel during the entire weekend! The very pleasant Hotel In Den Hoof was on the outskirts of Maastricht and had a large, locked garage for the bikes. We were joined by our friend Andy from Manchester, who’d also got a place in the event. He’d taken an overnight ferry crossing from Hull to Calais and was staying at a different hotel, where the pro team Dimension Data were in residence. Andy bumped into Tommy Voeckler several times during his stay.
Bicycle paths ran past our hotel, so sitting in the restaurant we could look out the window and see endless numbers of cyclists whizzing past. We were getting our first real taste of Dutch cycling culture. I’d been to Amsterdam and seen all the cyclists there (making it difficult to know where to walk!), but I’d not experienced Holland’s cycling culture in a more typical town. Maastricht has a population of about 120,000 and is very pretty, but not as touristy as Amsterdam. It was eye-opening to experience a society in which cycling was so completely integrated into daily life. For car drivers, it was second nature to look out for cyclists on the cycle paths as they pulled in and out of car parks—cyclists have the right of way! Young people were so comfortable on their bikes that on one occasion we saw a girl reading a book as she cycled. This, of course, was possible because the paths were so well maintained and there was mutual respect between path users.
On Friday the 15th, Andy, Joe and I rode from our hotel over to Valkenburg to pick up our event numbers, wrist bands and timing chip. We had a pleasant ride, taking in the lay of the land, and enjoying our first ascent of the Cauberg—the famous final climb for both the sportive and the pros. The registration took place in a huge sports hall, giving us an idea of how large this event would be. It was a sunny day, so we enjoyed coffees outdoors while watching some of the other participants arriving. There was a pleasant buzz of anticipation. Valkenburg – where the sportive starts and finishes—is a very pretty town and would have made a nice sight-seeing destination had we not been so cycling focused! While riding, we saw Orica Greenedge out for a training ride; included in their numbers was Mat Hayman, who had just won Paris-Roubaix the previous Sunday. Andy spotted him and yelled out congratulations as they sped past. They, too, had to use the cycle paths for their training! Teams would get fines if they moved onto the roads. That evening, we had pizzas in Maastricht before early bedtimes.
On Saturday, the hotel served breakfast earlier than usual to accommodate all the cyclists taking part in the event. When we turned up to the restaurant, it was buzzing with people already in full cycling kit. We ate a big breakfast as fast as we could and got ready to meet Andy and cycle over to Valkenburg (10 km away). There was a lot of excitement in the air as we joined up with others heading to the start, and passed some who were already underway. The weather was better than had been forecast—a glimmer of sunshine, not too cold—but it was very windy, a factor that would continue throughout the day. We located the start of the sportive and got in the massive ‘queue’ waiting to pass under the yellow arch. It moved fairly quickly, the mood was jolly, and soon we were underway. Andy had told us to go on without him, since we’d done more training, and we did not see him again until after the event.
The route was circuitous and hilly—but, as Joe likes to say, the hills were mainly of the big-ring variety—there were just a lot of them! The other participants were of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. We began to learn Dutch cycling signals, which seemed mainly to consist of pointing at hazards. We wound through charming, tidy towns and picturesque countryside—even passing a perfectly positioned windmill. It’s good to remember to look around and enjoy the moment, to take in the new scenery. There was one part of our route that made us think of Jim: the detour to take in the nuclear power plant and the aggregate factory alongside a busy dual carriage way. The aforementioned wind was difficult at times. There were moments that my bike felt as though it was going to blow out from under me. Having an echelon would have been helpful! Because we spent at least half of the sportive on cycle paths, and because we had to wait at certain points for trains to pass or to be shepherded across busy roads, it was not possible to get a super fast time. We averaged (annoyingly) a fraction under 15 mph. I would also say that we held back a bit because of the advertised “1461 HM” of climbing. Well, I now think that “HM” must be a form of continental
European measurement that is not the same as metres, because my Garmin tells me that we did 800 metres of climbing. Next time, I would opt for a longer route, or go out harder (or both!). Having said that, climbing the Cauberg at the finish was not easy! “Shut up legs!” came to mind. At the finishers’ area, there were huge tents set up with stalls selling beer and burgers. There was a real party atmosphere, but the rain was now beginning to fall and we still had the 10 km ride back to our hotel. Hot showers were beckoning! Followed by more Lindeboom , burgers and chips in the hotel restaurant. The waitress looked a bit aghast at how quickly we inhaled our food and suggested that we might not need dinner that night. We corrected her. Later, we met Andy for dinner in Maastricht, where we learned that he hadn’t completed the event, but he was happy that he’d come along and was enjoying the atmosphere.
Sunday was the day to let our legs recover while we watched the pros race. For them, the event began in Maastricht and finished in Valkenburg. The peloton would pass our hotel around 11 am, so we got ourselves positioned. Holland is a country that loves its cycling, so as the peloton came by, the hotel staff all came out to line the road and cheer. This was a flat spot, so the pros whooshed by in no time. We’d been advised by one of the staff that a nearby hotel pub in the town of Bemelen made a great place to watch the race. The Hotel Bergrust sits near the top of the Bemelerberg, a longer, zig-zag hill that would be ascended twice. The hotel also had two big screens outdoors, broadcasting the race live. And it sold beer and sausages! The place was brimming, but very cheerful. Each time the pros ascended, the crowd would move to positions along the road and get ready to cheer. The hill location was superb for seeing the pros up close. We watched the finish on the big screen—Enrico Gasparotto of team Wanty. It was an emotional victory because the team had just experienced the death of their teammate Antoine Demoitié in a crash a few weeks prior—during Ghent-Wevelgem.
Sunday evening would give us one more chance to enjoy exploring Maastricht. We had a great Thai dinner with Andy. Monday was an early start in order to get around Brussels in time for our noon Eurotunnel crossing. Once again, the journey was 6 ½ hours door-to-door, but in my opinion the drive was well worth the effort because the weekend had been so enjoyable. We would definitely do the Amstel Gold again, and hope that the rest of the KRMCC will join us next time! 2018?