Spectating an Ardennes Spring Classic is a race within a race.
Managing time splits against the time it takes to drive from one "spot" to the next, parking strategies, automobile dismounts and remounts (how fast can you get into and out of a car), traffic, running/surviving/managing the Pamplona-like exodus in the wake of the peloton, dealing with (as in sometimes removing or driving around) barricades, photography demands VS. exit strategy in terms of vantage and which side of the street to watch from, arguing your way past blockades manned by foreign(to you) Police, unexpected construction, fast moving break-aways (in the actual race) extending the front of the race and the overall length of the caravan and generally making already tight time splits tighter, other spectators, the need to eat and pee, inconsistent smartphone internet connections (mapping!), myriad routing options, etc., not to mention the need to maintain a sense of direction (N, S, E, W) and the countless advantages local driving and street knowledge afford, all make for a challenging and demanding Race-Within-A-Race. Amstel Gold, because of its advantageous shape (a few loops) and size and length, and because it takes place in a heavily populated and dense (all things considered) area of The Netherlands where hundreds of villages are linked by hundreds of roads, where thousands of 4-5-6-7-spoked roundabouts lead to millions of combinations and opportunities in terms of strategic routing, in particular.
Seeing any given race more than once or twice is sometimes difficult. Seeing the start and the finish and maybe once in between is sometimes, if not often, the absolute best-case scenario. For perspective (the Flanders Classics):
- Ronde van Vlaanderen: The course is effectively a straight line with few roads paralleling the route; in 2011 we (MFS) paid a local truck-driving dude 100 American dollars to drive us so that we could see the race three times (including the start but not the finish).
- Scheldeprijs: Who cares? This race is a five hour rolling enclosure through the suburbs of Antwerp; in 2011 we (MFS) saw it something like three times (including the start and finish), but again, who cares? This race is boring although if you like expert brickwork, right angles and modern-but-warm residential architecture, it's okay. Plus, frites.
- Paris-Roubaix: A straightish line through small villages. There are a few roads parallel to the course but unless you speak French and intimately know the neighborhood roads and paths and allies, seeing the race more than once or twice is difficult. In 2011, the night before the race, in the parking lot of a bike shop in the village of Chantilly, we found a French Postman running black-market wheel support for his brother who raced on Ag2r, willing to drive our rental car. We saw the race six times, including the start and finish, and all the key cobble sections, but dude(s) that was one of the greatest of events of our life and we (MFS) will never go back to Paris-Roubaix because nothing will ever compare.
Last year (2012) in the village of Sibbe, while walking the Amstel Gold course, Photo Tunic and all, a young man introduced himself to me, he said he was Raoul, he wanted to know why I was there, shooting a bicycle race in Europe with an Analog Camera. I told him about Manual For Speed. He told me about his Dad, about how they had been spectating Amstel Gold (as well as Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) since he could remember, he said it was a family thing, a series of annual events tantamount to a religious pilgrimage. Amstel Gold, he said, was the least heroic of all (only 48 editions to date) but the most difficult to race, and the best to follow by car & RWAR (Race-Within-A-Race).
The 260km Beer Race takes place in the hills of South Limburg (southernmost of the Dutch provinces), in an area of approximately 660 square kilometers. That’s small! Limburg consists of narrow roads with lots of street furniture,1 twists & turns, and the 34 short but steep climbs of the race (4000 meters of climbing). While it’s hard for the riders, it’s easy for spectators, because Limburg is full of side roads—paved and unpaved—meaning you can cut off the race easily. All roads lead to Rome, but you have to know them!—Raoul
I told him we planned to see the race three, maybe four times that day. He laughed and laughed and when finally he was done laughing, he told me they would see it at least nine times. Within a few days, thanks to the internet and Dutch Public School Foreign Language Curriculums, we were emailing, and by the following Sunday (Liège-Bastogne-Liège) we were on caravanning terms. Where we (MFS) had planned to see LBL three or maybe four times, they had plans to see it at least five times—and they did, and by proxy so did we.
After the Classics and throughout 2012, we continued to email and talk. In January 2013, I told Raoul we were coming back. I told him we wanted to ride with him and his Dad this time. I said caravanning is cool and all, but let’s just do this for real. He said I was welcome, he said I could stay with him, he said that his Mom would make White Gold Soup (cream of white asparagus) for us. I said cool, that sounds delicious, oh and before I forget, what’s the key to spectating Amstel?
Most people think spectating a Spring Classic is just like the Grand Tours: standing next to the road, waiting for hours till the race passes by for 30 seconds and that’s it. No, it's definitely not. Spectating a Spring Classic is totally different, it’s a way of life! During the Spring Classics, the real cycling fans gather. Speed, chaos, brutality and strategy are the keywords to success. The most important word is strategy. Everybody has their own; the question is whose is best? We see Amstel nine times. There are a few more options, but the quality of the spots will be lower. If you want nice uphill spots, nine is the maximum by car.—Raoul
Amstel Gold, By Location
Narration by Raoul Sturme
1. Maastricht in ‘de markt’ (9:00am - 10:15am, 0km)
“I like to watch the bikes and the team presentation while enjoying the smell of massage oil, coffee, fish, frites, Vietnamese specialties and a typical Dutch cake stall.”
2. ‘De Lange Raarberg’ (10.50am, 20km)
“After the start we had 40 minutes to make it to the first climb. It’s just a climb."
3. ‘Sibbe’ (11.30am, 50km),
“This is the place where Daniel and I met last year—and look where that conversation has led to. Cycling = Socializing!”
4. ‘De Loorberg’ (12.15pm, 80km)
“It's a climb like the Alpe d'Huez but 10 times shorter and with just one nice hairpin instead of 21!”2
5. Camerig (12.45pm, 100km)
“The longest climb of the day, more than 1km. This was a beautiful but doubtful spot, because it's shortly after 'De Loorberg' and the gap from the leaders to the peloton was more than 10 minutes. We had to make a crucial road crossing, but there was a traffic jam already. Finally with a bit of force we passed the traffic jam via the other side of the road, hoping there would be no traffic from the opposite direction. When we were on the hill, we found out that we missed the leading group because of the 10 minute gap, but it was worth it!”
6. Gulperberg (13.45pm, 135km)
“The most beautiful climb of the day is in an open field. You can see them coming from far away, towards the horizon. It's also the point in the race where the peloton is starting to close the gap and where the helicopters join the race for live TV coverage. The sound of the helicopter beckons to the race and it makes people shout; ‘Aaah, they are coming!’ Afterwards, we went to a takeaway restaurant for Dutch 'krokets'.3
7. Bemelerberg (15.00pm, 180k)
“One of the two climbs used during last year's World Championships in September.”
8/9. The New Finish in Valkenburg (Vilt) (230 & 250k, 16.00 & 16.30pm)
“The same finish as the Worlds last year. A big improvement from last year's race, because it made the finale much more exciting. Now it's not only the best explosive climber who can win. From now on the rider with the biggest engine, who can accelerate once on top of the Cauberg, can win! Also a nice spot to watch the final, enjoying an Amstel. You could move to a different spot for each the two passages of the race at the finish, but why would you if the weather is good and you have a beer to toast on a great day?”
A BRIEF HOW-TO
- Plan out your route with the race roadbook4 and Google Maps.
- Recon rides don't make sense if you don't know the roads, so meet locals.
- Getting frites during the day can mess up your plan, so don’t! Or they have to be really good, in which case it’s worth it to miss a spot.
- Always park your car a bit far away from the race, and always point your car in the direction of the next spot.
- Always get back to your car ASAP!
- Forget the traffic rules!
- If you go by bike, rent a scooter instead of a motorcycle. They are way cheaper and the small, crowded areas and roads mean you can get everywhere easier by scooter than by car or a big moto.
- If you have time left, visit the American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten.