Friday, 13 April 2012

Amstel Gold Race 2012

The Parcours (click to enlarge)
We've all enjoyed a spectacular few weeks'-worth of bike racing in Flanders at the Cobbled Classics - now it's time to move on to the Amstel Gold Race, the first of the Ardennes Classics. This one is held in a part of Limburg, the most southerly part of the Netherlands, that were it not for a land corridor that at its narrowest is less than 5km wide would be a Dutch enclave sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. The start line is at the 17th Century Staadhuis in Maastricht (50°51'4.78"N 5°41'28.89"E), right up against the Belgian border on the western side and believed (with some dispute from Nijmegan) to be the oldest city in the country. It's also, of course, the Capital of Europe; birthplace of the European Union and euro currency.

The race consists of three parts, the first being the longest and the last the shortest, and after the flat landscape of Flanders (which, as we know, is not without some serious climbs), the beautiful Ardennes landscape is a refreshing change. It's a region of forested hills that is very different to the rest of the Netherlands - and the people too are very different. They have their own distinct folklore and traditions, their own cuisine and - most notably - their own language, Limburgish, which shares similarities with Dutch and German but is distinct and has numerous dialects of its own. Back in the early days of the 1960s and 1970s, the Gold was known as something of a sprinters' race, but as the course was altered over the years (it had to be - the first time it was run, the organisers simply drew the route on a map and completely forgot to take rivers into account) it became a climbers' race and lately it's turned into an event for the attackers (and for the last two years, Philippe Gaumont's race).

The race passes through Ubachsberg, 2007
Nevertheless, it remains hilly - There are no fewer than 31 climbs during the course of its 256.5km route and the many of them surpass 10% at some point on the way up - it's a toughie alright, and not everyone will make it to the last climb of the day. It's also well-known for large numbers of crashes - the Netherlands is a densely populated nation and Limburg is a very densely populated region where few houses have garages, meaning a lot of parked cars become an added hazard, as does Limburg's apparently inordinate love of excess street furniture.

Steephill have an altitude profile here.
Race Itinerary
Official website
Provisional start list

Kasteel Elsloo
The Parcours
The first climb, Maasberg, is only 10.7km from the startline. It's not too harsh with an average gradient of 4.4% but it reaches 11% at the steepest point - far gentler than some of the killer slopes we saw in Flanders (like the Flanders climbs, there are cobbles here) but enough to discourage the weaker members of any early breaks. Kasteel Elsloo sits at the bottom of the climb; which reveals it to be a house designed to look like a castle rather than the real thing which would have been placed in a more strategically advantageous position at the top. In fact, it began life as a brewery and was later converted into a home, then abandoned following a series of fires before passing into the ownership of a margarine magnate. Adsteeg, with a steeper average of 4.7% but less difficult at the steepest part (8%) than Maasberg, is the next climb at 32.5km and will be familiar as a common feature of the Dutch National Championship road race.

7km further up the road is Lange Raarberg (Climb 3, average 4.3%, maximum 6%). The name translates into English as "long, strange mountain;" but disappointingly it's no stranger than most other hills and derives its name from its proximity to the village Raar (which is itself not very strange and derives its name from Limburgish for "open land," perhaps once the most striking feature in the forested region). At 54.7km, the riders arrive at Bergseweg - one of the easiest climbs with a average gradient of only 3.4% - then at 66.6km it's Sibbergrubbe, also not steep (3.75%) but attractive with the sunken road (the grubbe) set in a time-worn groove in the landscape. While roads such as this are undeniably very pretty to look at, they serve to trap sharp bits of flint and thorns from surrounding fields and hedgerows and, as such, become puncture traps.

Then, at 72km, it's Cauberg. Beginning at the city gates of Valkenburg and the 6th climb of the race, it's a much harder prospect with an average gradient of 8% and maximum of 12%. The hill has a long history and is the site of Roman catacombes, flint mines that date back even further into the Neolithic period and were still in used by the pre-Roman Celts who named the hill Kadeir (which, through various mutations, led to its present name), 20th Century limestone mines (the Gemeentegrot). It has serious cycling history, too - in addition to the Amstel Gold, the World Championships, Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana have all passed this way and for the last two years there's been an important cyclo cross race here too. Just beyond Noorbeek (one of the country's most attractive villages) Wolfsberg (Climb 7) is at 93.2km - the average gradient is 5.8%, but it's 12% at the toughest part.

Loorberg, at 98.8km, is Climb 8. The average gradient of 5.1% is steeper than the previous hill but its maximum 9% makes it less daunting. At 108.9km Schweibergerweg (Climb 9) tops out at around 8.6% with an average of  3.7%, then at 115.3km Camerig (Climb 10) with its maximum gradient is 9%, but an average of 7% prevents it from ever being described as easy - in fact COTACOL, a book of hills in the Low Countries compiled by Daniel Gobert and Jean-Pierre Legros, rates it as the hardest climb in the Netherlands.

Drielandenpunt, Climb 11 at 128.3km, marks the point where the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet (a tripoint, which is far commoner phenomenon than many people imagine - there are 176 around the world, depending on how political borders are drawn across the globe). According to the official website, the average gradient is 3.8%. The maximum according Aerodata International Surveys  is a very tough 14.1%. The hill is also known as Sneeuwberg, snow mountain, and at 322.5m above sea level is the highest geographical point in the country. Having crossed the border for a brief sortie into Belgium, the riders climb to the village of Gemmenich (Climb 12, ave. 6.4%) and then into the Vijlenerbos forest nature reserve (Climb 13, ave. 5.1% and remaining so to the end, where a nasty little ramp closer to 13% awaits) and on to Epen - the maximum gradient for this section is 9.7% and the average 3.4%, with downhill sections. On the way, the riders begin the second part of the parcours

Monument on Gulperberg
After 144.4km, the race tackles Eperheide (Climb 14, max. 10%, ave. 4.5%) and the arrives 8km later at Gulperberg, Climb 15. One of the steepest hills in the race, when approached from the east - as will be the case - the average gradient is 8.1%, but there's a sudden increase just after halfway where the maximum is 15%. Van Plettenbergweg (Climb 16, ave. 3.7%, max. 8%) is next in line, followed by Eyserweg (Climb 17, ave. 4.4%, max. 9%) less than 2km later and Huls (Climb 18, unknown gradient) with its 128.5m TV and radio antenna 5km after that.

Vrakelberg (Climb 19) lies at 168.1km, another tough hill with an average gradient of 7.7% and maximum of 13%, the road surface here tending to be rather rough and poorly-maintained; then at 176km the riders find themselves back on Sibbergubbe (now Climb 20) as the parcours traces the same route as the first part but heads the other way. Cauberg (now Climb 21) is climbed for the second time at 181.5km, then 3.5km later they reach Geulhemmerweg (Climb 22, ave. 6.2%, max. 11.9%) and then head back into Maastricht. 5.7km later the race reaches Caldier en Keer where riders begin the third part of the parcours.

At 198.7km lies Bemelerberg (Climb 23, ave. 4%, max. 6%) where limestone outcrops, mostly created by quarrying, add greatly to the attractiveness of the landscape. Three climbs from earlier come in the next 30km: Wolfsberg (now Climb 24, 215.8km), Loorberg (now Climb 25, 221.4km) and Gulperberg (now Climb 26, 229.7km) before the race heads on to Kruisberg (Climb 27) at 235.2km - not the one that features in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but an even steeper hill with an average gradient of 8.4% and a maximum of 17%.

Eyserbosweg is Climb 28 at 237.3km - less than 2km from Kruisberg, it's a real test with an average gradient of 7.9% and maximum of 17%, making it a likely place for some riders to abandon. Fromberg (Climb 29, ave. 4.8%, max. 9%) lies 3.7km further on, followed by Keutenberg (Climb 30) 4.5km later - this being where the race gets serious on a slope that averages 6.1% but, at the steepest point, hits a cruel 22% - the same maximum as the legendary Koppenberg. Even with Keutenberg over, the riders aren't finished climbing: after another 10.3km, they reach Cauberg (now Climb 31) for a third and final time, ascending to the finish line in Valkenburg.

Freire's not the strongest nor the
fastest, but you can achieve a lot
if you use your head (and you're
as sneaky as a thieving alleycat)
The Favourites
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) has had a slow start to the season, but he seemed to have finally come back to life at the Brabantse Pijl where he showed signs of finding the excellent form he was on last year. Having won for the last two consecutive years, Gilbert has to be  favourite today - for the top five and possibly the podium, if not for first place. If Gilbert's not got what it takes, his team mate Cadel Evans might have: he's got experience in the Ardennes having won La Flèche Wallonne in 2010 and he's got the form to bully his bike over the climbs and his rivals out of the way. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) has shown time and time again that he can both sprint and climb and he also won the Enenco Tour after it came down this way and climbed some of these very hills last year. Like Gilbert, he may be outclassed for the top step of the podium, but there's a reasonable chance that he'll be somewhere nearby. Thomas Lövkvist (Sky) - the boy has form, he won the Circuit des Ardennes in 2003 and 6th at La Flèche Wallonne in 2009. Now aged 27 and entering what may be his best years, he's continually improved his climbing to become a formidable all-rounder. Samuel Sanchez showed us all at the Tour of the Basque Country that, when he wants to be, he's one of the world's very best climbers - and as part of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team that trains all year round in the High Pyrenees, these green hills hold few fears for him. Don't forget that Sanchez holds another ace in the form of his legendary descending ability, too - a rare talent for a climber. Oscar Freire (Katusha) is a devastatingly fast sprinter and not a bad as many of his ilk when it comes to the climbs, but what really stands him in good stead is his brain - there has been more than one occasion when he's made full use of the chaos at the end of a race (and this one gets really chaotic) to sneak past the big guns when none of them are looking his way and steal victory from under their front wheels.

Wildcards: a Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), either one of them. Both are physically capable of winning this race; whether or not the actually can depends on whether they can stop pratting around and get themselves into gear (Johny must spend every day wanting to knock their heads together). Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) - stranger things have happened, and he was 4th at the Brabantse Pijl last year. (Provisional start list here)

It's looking as though rain is likely, with a 40% chance of at least some at Maastricht during the day. Chances are it'll be light showers, but some heavier squalls are possible too - when the wind blows from the north over Limburg, the hills force low-lying air currents that have crossed the Netherlands from the North Sea to suddenly increase in altitude and cool so that water vapour condenses to form clouds and precipitation. On the other side of the region at Vaals rain is slightly more likely with a 50% chance of drizzle. It's not going to be warm, either - the actual high of 9C isn't exactly toasty to begin with, but once the wind (up to 28-30kph) is taken into account it'll feel a good 4-5C lower than that. All in all, not a very nice day.

Local Sights
Kasteel Geulle
Maastricht, as might be expected, has a mixture of charming ancient and stunning modern architecture. It's very Belgian in character - which, despite the stereotype, does not mean boring because Belgians + beer + bikes = Saturnalia. Sittard (19.4km), hometown of cyclist Eddy Beugels, has what must be one of the most quintessentially European town squares anywhere on the Continent. Meersen (38.1km) is home to Kasteel Geulle, a fortified manor house surrounded by a wide moat. Raar (40.7km) has two tiny roadside chapels, one dating from the middle of the 19th Century and the other from the early 20th. Valkenburg (46.6, 66.4, 71.1, 175.8, 180.6 and 255.7km) preserves small sections of its medieval city walls and two gatehouses. Mheer (89.8, 212.3km) also has a castle, dating from the 14th Century with various 15th, 16th and 17th Century additions and Hoogcruts (95.1, 217.8km) a ruined 18th Century monastery that resembles an English country house of the same period. Mechelen (107.1, 148.9, 225.9km) has a very beautiful half-timbered house, the Heerenhof, that dates from the 12th Century. Vaals (125.5km) is a town made of important monuments with over 70 sites and buildings considered of architectural merit. Many of the villages along the parcours have half-timbered houses that in many cases are historically important.

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