Rid­ing Gold in the Nether­lands

The bergs, and beer, of the Dutch Alps are a must for any cy­cling fan

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Steve Thomas

The bergs, and beer, of the Dutch Alps are a must for any cy­cling fan

Some­times it’s hard to ad­mit that you got things a lit­tle wrong. I have to bow with em­bar­rass­ment and openly raise my hand to hav­ing done just that with the Lim­burg re­gion of the Nether­lands. I was so very wrong. Sorry.

The Nether­lands, or Hol­land as so many of us of­ten re­fer to it with a mi­nor ge­o­graph­i­cal mis­judg­ment (Hol­land is a re­gion of the Nether­lands), is a place that many cy­clists imag­ine as pan-flat, largely re­claimed from the sea. The coun­try also con­jures up images of straight, windswept roads, all lined with dykes, wind­mills, and heav­ily dec­o­rated with tulips and daf­fodils. Ah, lovely. It could stack up to be­ing po­ten­tially very bor­ing when it comes to rid­ing a bike.

And yes, those el­e­ments are there. Luck­ily, there is also a whole dif­fer­ent side to the place: the com­par­a­tively moun­tain­ous re­gion of Lim­burg, a bor­der­land area with Bel­gium with its own deep her­itage and iden­tity. The hills of Lim­burg – and there are loads of them – tend to be re­ferred to as bergs, which we all know of from the many chap­ters of pro cy­cling his­tory that have been carved out of their steep slopes. A berg never seems to end, or at least not un­til the next one pops up, which hap­pens with heart-pump­ing fre­quency.

Flat and bor­ing this re­gion is cer­tainly not. It’s a very rolling, vi­brant place with a lot of su­perb scenery and some of the best road rid­ing in the north of con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Think of Lim­burg as the Dutch Alps.

The Am­s­tel Gold Race and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing sportive event (which acts as a pre­lude to the main race) had been the aim of my visit here. The race is one of the newer of the clas­sics on the block, with April 16 mark­ing its 52nd edi­tion. With a mid-april stag­ing, it’s the first of the Ar­dennes Clas­sics, fol­low­ing Cob­bled Clas­sic closer, Paris-roubaix. Am­s­tel Gold has a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the tough­est, hard­est Clas­sics to win. It’s some­thing that I never quite un­der­stood, un­til I got to ride the maze of roads that make up the com­plex and test­ing route.

Spring­time in north­ern Europe can of­ten be harsh and grim, which is just what makes the Spring Clas­sics as tough and leg­endary as they are. In any given race, you can ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence all four sea­sons in one day, of­ten even within an hour. Heavy winds and thrash­ing rain can turn to snow and then mag­i­cally back to sun­shine within the space of an en­ergy bar’s con­sump­tion. On my week­end, it was a dash­ingly sum­mer-like 23 C, which is just per­fect for rid­ing the rapid pro­ces­sion of in­tense climbs. True to form, the daf­fodils were in full bloom, con­trast­ing boldly with the greens and browns of the après-win­ter fields. The leaves were just re­turn­ing to the trees. The skies were a breezy blue, all fluffed to per­fec­tion with clouds – pos­i­tively idyl­lic, and quite un­ex­pected and wel­comed. The bor­der­ing Bel­gian re­gion blends al­most seam­lessly into Lim­burg, dou­bling your po­ten­tial rides. The town of Maas­tricht is a great base for clas­sic cy­cling pil­grim­ages with as many his­toric race routes as you wish. These are great to check out dur­ing race time, but even bet­ter to ride dur­ing the sum­mer when you can bare legs and keep your rear dry – usu­ally. There are so many of these twisted and hilly roads, you could eas­ily clock 1,500 m in el­e­va­tion with­out trav­el­ling more than 30 km from Maas­tricht, which is also where the Am­s­tel Gold Race starts.

The grey and me­an­der­ing maze of roads is ex­actly what makes the Am­s­tel Gold Race so tough. The routes are slen­der, cur­va­ceous with plenty of road fur­ni­ture. Many of the roads are also ex­posed in places, mean­ing that the winds that have sculpted the jaw­bones of so many Dutch cham­pi­ons will lash at you in a free-for-all man­ner

at their mercy. Look­ing at the route map for the race and the sportive is sim­i­lar to look­ing at a bike courier’s Strava log for the year. It’s an ab­so­lute spaghetti-like mesh of ins, outs and around-abouts – of­ten tak­ing in the same climbs and sec­tors in op­po­site di­rec­tions within less than half an hour or so.

A ride or two in this re­gion will make you re­ally feel as if you’ve con­quered a Clas­sic.

De­tails

Get­ting there Amsterdam is the near­est in­ter­na­tional gate­way. If you in­tend to make a week or more of things and take in the other Ar­dennes Clas­sics, Brus­sels is also a good op­tion. Nei­ther city is too far away.

Trains are a great way of trav­el­ling around this part of Europe. All of the Clas­sic races and routes are ac­ces­si­ble by com­bin­ing rails and bikes. A rental car, how­ever, is an even bet­ter op­tion and adds a lot of flex­i­bil­ity, espe­cially when the weather gets un­friendly and time is short. Around town The his­toric and small city of Maas­tricht is where the Am­s­tel Gold Race starts, and where many pro teams base them­selves for much of the Ar­dennes Clas­sics pe­riod. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing and very scenic place. If you are look­ing for some­thing even more spe­cial, head to the town of Valken­berg, which is at the foot of the of­ten-de­ci­sive Cauberg climb. When to visit Race week­end in April is good if you want to com­bine spec­tat­ing and sportive rid­ing. The best weather comes later and last un­til Oc­to­ber.

For de­tails on the sportive and race check out am­s­tel.nl. Rid­ing tips No mat­ter what time of year you chose to visit, you do need to be pre­pared for al­most ev­ery weather even­tu­al­ity. Warm and wa­ter­proof gear is al­ways a wise thing to stuff in the bot­tom of your bag.

There are many places on­line (such as Strava) from where you can down­load .gps tracks for the race route. I rec­om­mend you do so, as there are so many twists and turns that a route can be hard to fol­low.

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