The biggest one day bike race in the Netherlands takes place on Sunday. It’s always an exciting race and if you want a preview, well the Pavé guys will probably do it better soon. Instead I thought I’d take a side look at the race, to review the geography of the event. Plus a quick mention of what Amstel is, in case you don’t know.
First of all the country is cycling crazy. Not sport, but transport. Many move around by bike, it is not a lifestyle choice nor a statement but just a simple means to get about. Second this is helped by the country being flat. One quarter of the country is below sea level and the highest point of the country is the Vaalserberg, at 322 metres above sea level. Third, strip out micro-states like Monaco and the Vatican and the Netherlands has Europe’s highest population density, meaning many places are within easy reach by bike.
Put all this together and you’ve loads of people cycling round a flat and crowded country. It’s a great nation but open space is at a premium and wilderness doesn’t exist. At times it feels like an endless suburbia where signs, lampposts and other items of street furniture clutter the roads. See the waaier training clip for some evidence.
As such it means the Amstel Gold Race has to use what it can and the parcours is very tricky, a constant series of turns and twists where riders have to cope with traffic calming measures – often beneficial for the cyclist but not the racer – like raised pedestrian crossings, chicanes and other means.
See the race map, you can click and open it in a new window or tab. The race takes place in the southern tip of the country, a finger of land alongside the river Maas (aka Meuse) that is bordered by Belgium and Germany. Note the repeated loops, this is not a point-to-point race like Milan-Sanremo nor an “out and back” like Liège–Bastogne–Liège but instead covers the same roads several times, thus maximising the number of climbs. It’s a tricky route. No wonder Ryder Hesjedal is a favourite, his Garmin device will come in handy knowing where to turn.
Cycling is a popular sport and the population density means many turn out to watch the race. The crowds can be huge. But not every one likes the race, reports have said a local has been dropping tacks on the circuit to make the riders puncture and sabotage the race.
Amstel is a beer. Alcohol used to be a big sponsor of cycling, from Pernod to Martini, St Raphaël to Henniger beer but this has dwindled. But the Dutch name is still there. Once an independent brewery, it was bought by brewing giant Heineken in 1968 and they eventually shut down the original plant and moved to the main Heineken brewery.
It was the first Dutch brewery to export using cans instead of bottles and it retains a brewery on the Caribbean island of Curaçao which is partly why the end of season criterium, the Amstel Curaçao takes place there. It’s the chance for bizarre photos of riders swimming with dolphins. But if you thought that was weird, Amstel also uses alternative forms of cycling to sell beer.
History aside, regulars at the race report that the beer flows freely and the massive crowds at the finish on the Cauberg climb, often several people deep, can get pretty vocal, dutch courage you might say. It all adds to the atmosphere and makes the finish one of the loudest going. Even the winner gets a taste.