Event Review

REVIEW: Amstel Gold Race Sportive 2017

by Caven O'Hara

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REVIEW: Amstel Gold Race

When you start a journey you may have a destination in mind, you might not. There are occasions when you may take a different path to get to the same end that you might not have considered at the outset.

In 2010 I rode the L'Etape, finishing on top of the mighty Tourmalet. Seven years later I had no idea my cycling journey would have taken me so far. I don't mean the simple accumulation of miles but where I have wheeled. What started as a quest to try one of the infamous Spring Classics races that the professionals ride every year and provide such iconic pictures and video footage. 


It began with Paris-Roubaix and after plenty of sweat and gears it was set for completion with this year's assault on the Amstel Gold Race. The other bastions of the northern set of Spring Classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Flanders had already been conquered. That left the Dutch leg of the journey, the newest of the classics at less than fifty years of age but no less revered, certainly by the Dutch. Another observation, the Dutch love a party. 

So last year having completed Flanders, thoughts turned to what next. With a sense of inevitability, Amstel cropped up. Not knowing as much about the race or the region it is held offered up intrigue and questions. The Limburg region is not as flat as many people think Holland is in general. When the race came into existence the organisers must have got a piece of spaghetti and used that to link all the hills in the area. If you look at the route afterwards, it gives the impression of a rider who has taken advantage of the sponsor's product. 

What was to come..

Before all of that there is the preparation. I have to say I do enjoy a good planning session or two. With hotel secured, crossing booked and van hired it was time to throw ourselves into training. Inevitably the date of the ride soon came around. It was always going to be busy as the event fell over the Easter weekend. An early start didn't dent the enthusiasm and despite the queues we made our allotted tunnel crossing. The journey across northern France, Belgium and finally into Holland went smoothly. We had already decided to head straight to Valkenburg, the site of the start/finish area and the registration arena. Walking down through the building to collect our race numbers, you pass the trade stands but also get a chance to explore the route thanks to the interactive map. There is a sense of perspective and history as you walk past the photos of the legends of the sport who have ridden this path before.  The registration process was simple but what none of us had expected was the start numbers going all the way up to 55,000! 

Old School

We were staying in Maastricht less than 20Km away and despite being in the centre it was easy to get to. A quick check in and we wandered into town in search of food. Walking through the streets into the main thoroughfare you are struck by how charming the city is, not at all what we had expected. New shop facades are mixed into old, characterful buildings, bars and restaurants throng the streets and there are a lot of cyclists. People are relaxed, cheerful, well it was Friday and seem to be enjoying themselves. With an early start we retired and left the crowds to sup their beers and wines. The hotel had a good sprinkling of cyclists staying so breakfast was laid on nice and early. With the van loaded we just had to get ourselves to the start. The forecast had not been kind, wind and rain for the morning with a chance of it clearing in the afternoon - no promises then. As it happened, it rained a lot, was cold and there were some strong gusts of wind. Oh well, we'd got away with it on every previous trip, I suppose we were owed one. 

Wet and cold

With several car parks provided it was easy to get sorted. Thankfully as the suggested exit off the motorway provided by the Sat Nav had been closed. Disaster averted, we were soon ready to roll out of the field and to the start. At this point it is probably worth noting, when you use these facilities make a note of where you are! For the second year in a row were so pre-occupied with getting on with it that we didn't. More of those shenanigans later.

It was a short spin to the start, following the hordes of cyclists converging on what we hoped would be the start. Thankfully they were and we joined the queues. The rain had been falling steadily and it was good to be moving again as the cold was seeping in. Part of the sign-on paraphernalia was a top tube sticker, depicting the climbs and when you would come across them on your route. Unfortunately it was that wet it didn't last until the first food stop at 50Km in. I did have time to notice that the first climb came after less than 10Km. So much for the gentle introduction. Indeed the second was not far beyond, so 2 of the classified climbs completed with less than 15Km ticked off. According to the top tube sticker this meant no more until after the first of the day's two feed stops. What it didn't show you is the numerous lumps that aren't classified. 

It wasn't this quiet for long

What definitely wasn't on the sticker was the potential for strong winds and incessant rain. The first feed stop eventually came into view. With a lumpy parcours leading up to this point it had seemed an effort. The feed stop was in a field, was well stocked with plenty of volunteers helping to top up bottles or hand out food. There were lots of portaloos and urinals, the European style is a pod of 4 urinals facing inwards to protect modesty. With the temperature heading south, we didn't dally. If you stood still for too long it induced shivering, it really doesn't happen very often where I look forward to climbing and positively welcome it!

Feedstops were packed

Back on the road and it was head down into the wind and rain. Despite the roads not being on closed roads, just about every junction was manned. Plus the Dutch are courteous when it comes to cyclists, perhaps the advantage of so many taking to two wheels themselves at some point. This was a big help as there was quite a lot of switching between roads, cycle lanes and back. Given the number of riders it was no surprise not to find any quiet roads. At no point did you find yourself alone on the open road. Quite unusual given the length of ride but at times it did feel congested, especially when contesting the climbs and even more so towards the end when all six routes came back together. 

Before that there was the small matter of getting to the second food stop. The number of climbs increased over the first third of the route which was welcome. The majority of the climbs are not long or overly steep but it is the cumulative effect they have on the legs. That is until the penultimate climb! The second stop was another welcome sight. Although after a brief stop Ray and Lee were beginning to shake almost uncontrollably. As I needed the loo I suggested they crack on and we'd meet up later. This turned out to be the best plan as keeping moving did help. Finally the weather started to show signs of improvement, with some rare sightings of sunshine. 

Eventually it did stop raining some of the roads dried out very quickly. Just as well given the last two climbs were challenging for different reasons. The Keuntenberg, the penultimate climb is short at only a few hundred metres but it has a steep section at the start that hit over 20%. Weaving through the traffic was harder given the hordes of riders spread all over the road. The fun didn't stop there, the hill kept rising before we finally hit the flat which left the iconic Cauberg. 

This is part of the ride that I had seen several times on TV over the years. You start with a long descent to the foot of the climb in the village of Valkenburg. What I hadn't expected was the crowds at the 90 degree left hand that throws you onto the foot of the climb. There was even a woman banging out a tune on a tambourine although the vocals weren't as hot. 

Feedstop frenzy

The Cauberg is not a monster of a climb, certainly not with this level of support. You can't helped but be spurred on. From the top it is a couple of clicks to the finish line with yet more support urging you on. 

The Amstel Gold Race is one of the big Spring Classics but for me it didn't tick all the boxes. Yes it has the iconic climbs, the rolling terrain - I spent over 2 hrs climbing, but with this many riders it felt significantly more crowded than Flanders or Roubaix or even the other Ardennes giant, Liege. It is a top event, well run and marshalled but not the Top event.