The spring classics move from the west (Flanders region) to the east (Ardennes region) of Belgium. It could be a different country and for the day of the Amstel Gold Race, it is.
Before I went to this race, I didn’t ‘get’ the geography and thought the race was run further north, where The Netherlands is supposed to be (in my mind anyway). But it’s in the ‘tail’ that pokes down between Belgium and Germany.
Maastricht, where the race begins – and it never strays too far from there – is only a few kilometres over the border from Aachen in Germany where I stayed in 2010. It’s just a bus ride that leaves every half hour.
Aachen’s a beautiful place to stay – it has one of the most gorgeous and beautifully sized (i.e. smaller than monsters elsewhere) cathedrals you will ever see, and really clever bronze sculptures around the old town.
It may not be far from Aachen to Maastricht but it’s a huge step in sporting culture. In the German town, SKY shows German football, usually Budesliga. The locals at the railway station early in the morning, already downing their first(?) beer, were off to support their local team Aachen Muncheners.
Across the border in The Netherlands it’s a different story. It’s all cycling and half the population was out watching it.
I would say make sure you leave on an early bus but then I left late and got caught in the race but ended up having a fantastic day. We made it to Wittem Wittem before being stopped by the peloton. From the bus we could get a view of the boys tackling the Vilenbergweg which looked steep enough to me but doesn’t rate a mention in the hierarchy of climbs.
The next village, Gulpen, seemed like a good place to watch the race. They have their very own tasty Gulpener Bier. Plenty of people were coming in from the roads after the race had passed. And plenty of people were just out enjoying the rare sunshine and warmth.
In the town ‘markt’ the Brouwerswapen Cafe and bar looked like a friendly place and it had 3 TVs with the race on. Not big flat screen jobs just small Sonys big enough to see what was going on. And much nicer for that.
The helicopters could be heard every now and then so you knew when the riders were near.
Every now and then the host behind the bar asked where the riders were but was too busy to stop and watch.
A group of older bike riders in their not quite fashionable gear (they weren’t doing any free advertising) finished their lunch but only occasionally glanced at the race. The interest was there but more in the food. The gear was definitively bike – and had plenty of reflectors. It was used day and night.
With about 30km left in the race go, and the breakaway caught, the interest seemed to officially start. Those inside started to come alive and more moved inside out of the sun.
Three young men from Maastricht – who had come here for the day – liked Cadel Evans and they all refered to him as Cadel.
As the race reached the last sharp bergs before the finale on the Cauberg, more people crowded in. Even our hosts and their helpers were watching the TV more than their customers.
As Philippe Gilbert launched himself from the front of the group the older men came alive and leapt to their feet. ‘Philippe’ they shouted and urged him all the way to the line.
My young Maastricht friend was not happy. He wanted Cadel to win.
It was a perfect way to watch the race and I can recommend Gulpener Bier (I didn’t try Amstel Gold).