Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
By Fred Dreier
Beer wasn’t atop my list of cravings as I inched up the Cauberg, rolled under the jumbotron and crossed the final finish line of the Amstel Gold Race cyclosportive. Pedaling 250 kilometers through Hollands hilly Limberg region had me wanting to get off my bicycle – pronto. The freezing rain that fell for the final two hours also didn’t exactly put yours truly in the mood for some chilly suds. And after stuffing waffles and the sugary Euro sports drink Isostar down my pie hole for 10 hours, I craved something salty: corn chips, popcorn or frites.
But when in Valkenburg, do as the locals do. And by the time I crept into town, the locals were blitzted — enough so to be rocking out by the hundreds in the rain to a bad Belgian Pearl Jam cover band.
I did what any journalist hell bent on understanding Dutch cycling culture would do. I waddled over to the beer garden in my bike shoes and wet chamois, dolloped mayo on a heap of frites and ordered up a tall glass of brew.
It was Amstel, of course. And that first mouthful tasted nasty. But I’ve come to understand that at these big European cyclosportives, pain is part of the pleasure.
The Amstel Gold race organization has held a citizens ride the day before the pro race for the last eight years. But unlike the popular Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) ride, which each year attracts between 18,000 to 22,000 riders, the Amstel tour caps its registration at 12,000. That may sound like a lot, but the full field sells out in between 24 and 36 hours.
Entries go on sale a handful of months before the race, and the organization releases the sale date on its Web site. A handful of American tour operators buy up race numbers for prospective clients. I obtained mine from Peter Easton with the VeloClassic Tours outfitter; each year he organizes outings to the cobbled and Ardennes classics, among other European races.
That’s not to say you can’t just jump into the Amstel tour and ride the route without a number. A riding buddy who wished to remain anonymous is a multiple-time Amstel tour poacher who offered this sage advice for jumping in the ride for free.
I avoided the refreshment stations and ate along the way — you’ll see a few trucks selling coke and bananas and you go through towns. After you cross the finish line they funnel into an area with a big huge tent and they were looking to take your wristbands, numbers etc. Since I didn’t have any I tried to turn around like a salmon going upstream and was told that I couldn’t and that I had to go in, so I thought I was screwed and they would bust me or something. Anyway I hid out a while and made a run for it backward and didn’t stop. I had to walk down the hill on the side which was filled with spectators. Since I didn’t speck Dutch I really don’t know if I would’ve been busted or not, so to avoid this just turn around immediately after you cross the finish.
If you get caught, you didn’t hear it from me.
Amstel also differs from Flanders in that it does not fully retrace the route taken by the pros. It starts and finishes in Valkenburg, while the pros start in nearby Maastricht. It offers six routes: 65, 100, 125; 150, 200 and 250 kilometers, while the pros tackle 258. The 250km ride includes many of the same roads and bergs as the pro race, it just hits them in a different order. And the 250km route features 19 hills compared to 31 for the pros.
Take my word for it — 19 bergs is more than enough.
My ride at Flanders last year marked my first foray into the European cyclosportive scene. I was blown away by that ride’s sheer size — at times it felt like a race ride, with a fast-moving peloton of 100 riders speeding across the countryside.
From the gun the Amstel ride had a different flavor. Groups formed up early, however they were smallish in size, with perhaps 10 or so friends rolling along together. And with a plethora of route options, the crowds thinned even more as riders split off to tackle shorter loops. Paying close attention in those opening hours was critical, as the route is demarked by a series of colored arrows. None of the arrows contain the distance, however, as it’s up to the rider to recognize the color code for each route.
The pace was also much slower than at Flanders, and I found myself riding alongside guys on flat-bar commuter rigs and mountain bikes. While I found some folks who spoke a bit of English, detailed conversation was, for the most part, out of the question. The first hours dragged on with a predictable monotony. I leap-frogged from group to group looking for one with either a fast tempo or an English speaker.
Eventually a gaggle of Spanish guys chugged by and I hopped on. While conversation was absent, these guys were putting the hammer down, taking turns launching attacks, countering and then chasing each other down. For the next two hours the Amstel ride felt like the Saturday group ride in Boulder.
But the beauty of the cylosportives is that after each aid station there is a complete re-shuffling of your riding partners, as the stops break the ride into manageable two-hour segments. I breezed through a station while my Spanish buddies took their time filling up on waffles, and I never saw them again. Between two other stops I put in the Ipod and watched the Dutch countryside slip by to the sound of Thievery Corporation. During another segment I chatted about pro cycling’s doping woes with a Michael Boogerd fan from Rotterdam.
And when I arrived in Valkenburg at the base of the Cauberg, I held a deeper respect for the men who, the following day, would sprint up that steep SOB with 257 kilometers of racing already in their legs. My sprint was more of a slow, painful grind. And the pain didn’t go away — not even after I finished, got off my bike and had those first few sips of beer.
But after beer number two, well, I felt much better.