Our 4 am wake up call came after a long day of travelling and cycling based procrastination to Valkenburg for the start of Toerversie Amstel Gold Race. Although, the night before, we had prepared our bidons with concoctions of water, energy gels and electrolyte tablets; pinned on any numbers that needed pinning; and loaded up bar bags and back pockets with our own personal tuck shop, we still had a few chores to complete before getting out on the road.
The first carbs of the day was priority number one. Fueling would be a huge factor in getting us through today’s massive effort with the ‘little and often’ strategy the way forward. Breakfast, now relegated to just a small cog in that plan, didn’t stop us being treated to a high energy, bespoke combination of porridge and chia seeds, mixed together with a honey based energy gel.
Once we were layered up and the bikes loaded up, it was time to step out in to the dark and point ourselves in the general direction of the Shimano Experience Centre and the start line. Luckily, not much thinking was required for this: we just needed to follow the stream of blinking rear lights and like minded individuals. A food station conveniently just metres from the start line allowed us to stuff our pockets to an even bulgier level and then we were ready.
We rolled up to a group building up behind a huge, inflatable, Amstel emblazoned arch that represented the start and seconds later the starting pistol was fired. It was 6.30 am and we were actually on our way.
A day of numbers
For me, this type of activity is about numbers. If I ride at x speed I will be on the bike for y number of hours and have z amount of saddle sore! I wouldn’t want to be riding too much more that for twelve hours, as anything more would be desperately uncomfortable. I hadn’t decided at the start whether this would be twelve hours riding time or elapsed time, but I was looking at just over 20 km an hour average pace.
In addition to those incomprehensible numbers, there were 22 bergs to get over with between one and four climbs between each of the five feeding stations and eight climbs from the last feed stop at 188 km to the end on top of the Cauberg. Five of these eight climbs had gradients going in to double digits.
This was going to be a long day.
Getting warmed up: 0 to 93 kilometres
All the worries so far had been concerned with actually getting to the start line. Whatever happened now, I would actually be riding at least part of the Toerversie Amstel Gold Race. In the darkness of the first few kilometres I could now focus on what would go wrong on the ride itself. Within seconds of the start, we were peppered with a heavy shower making the dark roads becoming treacherous under tyre. I could fall off and lose pride. My five layers might not be enough to stave off hypothermia! I could miss a sign and get hopelessly lost and ride around Limburg in limbo for the rest of eternity.
Those delusions of a sleep deprived mind aside, the first few sightings of cyclists fixing punctures on the roadside, within what was a surprisingly short distance, did make me concerned. In all my preparations, I overlooked the possibility that I might need to fix one myself. Although running tubeless, was I putting reckless faith in the ability of my setup, or was I simply showing confidence in an established, tried and tested technology? Or had I simply forgotten to pack emergency tubes or even tyre levers?
The showers went away as the sun started to make an appearance and, as the risk of hypothermia seemed to be fading, it was finally put to bed after the Geulhemmerberg (8%) got the blood pumping enough to properly warm us up. A quick descent in to the outskirts of Maastricht even saw me tapping out a good pace of 25 kph without an increase in perceived effort. It was here that Sandra and I started going at our own pace.
The Maasberg (8%) at 22 km was only one of two cobbled climbs in the whole ride, but proved to be less difficult than the stretch of road afterwards in which I suffered rider number detachment; a leg warmer based wardrobe malfunction; and a flighty snack bar which jettisoned itself from from my hand after I had been desperately fishing for it in my back pocket.
Seeing Sinclair from CC London shortly afterwards buoyed my spirits and my rhythm returned as I passed the first feed stop followed by the second cobbled (or at the very least block paved) climb and before I knew it, I was at 64 km and tucking in to Belgian Waffles and cake at feed stop two. Confidence was building and thoughts that I may make the whole route were starting to creep in.
Indeed, climbs five and six were a delight. The Fromberg (8%) in particular, with its Amstel Banner across the road proudly announcing its presence, proved to be a relatively easy effort rewarded by an exhilarating sweeping descent. But then, on a parcours that has 22 climbs what goes down must come up again and the Koulenberseweg (10.7%), the first double digit climb of the day, was also the first indication that this was going to get harder. Feed stop three couldn’t come soon enough and allowed 10 minutes respite to stuff my face again.
One feed stop, five bergs and one decision: 93 to 168 kilometres
Shortly after the third feed stop the route descended in to Valkenburg and, if it hadn’t been dark during my last passage through here, these roads would be familiar, rather than just vaguely familiar. The Geulhemmerberg (8%) even gave a warm, fuzzy feeling of recognition and my now warmed up legs concluded this wasn’t so bad after all.
Signage problems just after the ascent of the Bemelerberg (7%) raised my fears of living in limbo once more as the 240 km route markers were noticeable by their absence. Where did they go? Were they ejected by the 150 and 200 km signs for being rude? I ploughed on equally concerned that I might not now be able to complete the full distance, or, due to the variations in routes, I may have to do extra distance that my legs couldn’t pay for. A few kilometres further down the line they returned and I was pretty sure everything was fine.
Further signage problems of my own making were becoming more nigglesome. I wasn’t able to load the GPX file to my Wahoo for technical reasons I didn’t bother to troubleshoot, and less technically, I had decided not to affix the provided frame sticker depicting the climbs and feed stations due to cleaning issues I didn’t want future me to get involved with. Having it on my phone, tucked away in a plastic bag, in my back pocket, covered by my gilet was sub-optimal. Taking sneaky peaks at people’s top tubes in the feed zones was the only option.
Anyway, the relevance of all this is that I thought the next feed station was after 140 km, not 149 km so as I went up the Heiweg (9.2%), past a man on roller skates and ski poles, I was starting to feel the heat and the first signs of a bonk. Because I thought I was closer that I was, I left it longer than I should to fuel up. Still, I eventually made the sensible decision to stop at an inviting roadside bench and stuff my face with gels and all the food I had stashed on my person. Luckily, no damage done.
Hot and sunny though it was at my location, clear rain storms at other point of the compass kept my stripping down to a more conservative pulling down of the zips on my layers. This, as it turned out was a sensible decision as during the 7 kilometres between my bench and the next official feed station it actually snowed. Quite hard.
After a quick food and drink restock, it wasn’t long before I got to the point at which the 240 and 200 km routes split. I had forgotten my near bonk, the inclement weather had regulated my temperature to something approaching normal. It was obvious that I had to finish what I signed up to do and turned right to complete the final third of the challenge.
Probably gone the wrong way: 168 to 188 kilometres
And although I regretted it almost straight away, it wasn’t straight away enough for me to do anything about it. The effort and extraordinarily long time getting through the next 10 km psychologically put aside any thoughts of retracing my steps. The roads were beginning to feel like treacle and the Camerig (7.7%), with its ‘ooo! Look at me, I am the Camerig!’ banner stretching across the road, wasn’t helping my ETA which was starting to drift out to 7 pm.
I stopped for some time to take on more food and drink at the crossroads at the top watching the large pelotons of riders come through from the opposite direction. They had already completed the 240 km route’s extra loop. I had been cursing these groups all day for taking up the space on the road I was already occupying; cursing riders happy to push me to the kerb if they wanted that particular piece of tarmac. Immediately ahead, however, it was starting to get quite lonely.
Although thoughts of taking the quickest route back to Valkenburg were increasingly at the forefront of my mind, the biggest opportunity to take a shortcut came after I had missed a left turn near Vaals. Coming to a to a staggered crossroads shortly afterwards I could see riders were flooding out on the junction on the opposite side of the road. Joining them would have saved around 10 km, and would have missed out Drielandenpunt (8.8%). A tempting prospect indeed, but one my stupid conscience wouldn’t let me contemplate further. I retraced my steps and got back on to the route.
Eight bergs to go: 188 to 248 kilometers:
At the feed station at the top of Drielandenpunt, bidons were filled, food stores replenished and face stuffed for the last time, I had 59 km and eight bergs remaining. It was worth the climb, not least because the descent was proper hairpin stuff, but this area was, geo-politically speaking at least, the most interesting of the route. Quite literally I was at the point that three lands meet. According to certain maps, the next few hundred metres were in Germany, before the road name morphed to the Route des Trois Bornes and I was in Belgium. Whilst on holiday, I ticked off the Gemmenicherweg (12.9%) almost immediately and a quick descent saw me back in the Netherlands and at the crossroads where I nearly cheated.
I was fixated by the numbers at this point, counting down each berg which seemed to be comforting indication of progress than distance. Imagine my disappointment when the climb back up to the crossroads at the top of the Camerig wasn’t classified.
The climbs were getting shorter, steeper and closer together. The Kruisberg (15.5%), the eyewatering Eyserbosweg (17.1%), Huls (9.5%) with it’s convenient bench halfway up all came in quick succession. But, whereas earlier I could cruise on the flats at 25 km an hour, now I was lucky if I could do 15. It was getting later and later, the photographers were starting to go home. 8.30 pm was now a more realistic ETA.
But with four climbs to go, and one of them being my old friend the Fromberg, the end was in sight. This new found optimism and hope didn’t stop me walking up the Keutenberg (16%) with its 22% maximum gradient. Nor did it stop me walking up the Cauberg (13.1%) after missing the left turn on to the hill and heading into Valkenberg instead. Disorientated and signless, I wasn’t going to ride up something I didn’t need to, but cheers of encouragement from people coming down the hill, indicated I was on track and I eventually got back on the bike confident I wasn’t just riding off in to the night never to be see again.
And finally at 8.12 pm, having recorded 248 km and, by the way, suffered no punctures, I crossed the line and headed in to the practically deserted event village. There was nobody handing out medals by this stage, but at least there was somebody able to show me to the box of medals so I could pick up my own.