Holland. Not known as a hilly country, this. I have relatives who live “at elevation” near the Kinderdijk, where I took this photo. They live at 3m above sea level. Right. Known more for wind than we are for hills, then. In fact, one of the many (many) interesting things about the Netherlands is that while most countries use windmills to grind grain, the Dutch use theirs to pump sea water out of what we call polders.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t involved in the planning of the dijk system back in the 11th Century when it was originally designed, because I would have completely overlooked the fact that once you build the dikes and pump the seawater out, it seeps right back in, the little bugger. It turns out that you need a mechanism to keep pumping the water out and back into the sea. Not so easy when you’re pumping the water from several meters below sea level, so the Dutch designed an ingenious system of tiered channels wherein the windmills power a water wheel that scoops water from a lower channel into a channel approximately 1 meter higher. Add more channels until you’re high enough to get it back out into the ocean. Then you sit back, pour yourself a luke-warm Pils, and let the ferocious wind do something more practical than turning cyclist into wind veins.
A fact often overlooked when painting the Netherlands with the “flat as a pancake” brush is our little provence of Limburg. The monkey’s tail of the country, it dips down into the south towards Belgium and into the fabled cycling hills of the Ardennes. The Ardenne are fascinating from a geological standpoint, of which I know almost nothing. When you stand at the top of these hills, the landscape looks almost like you’re standing on a plain. But between you and your neighbor a kilometer away lies a deep valley with short, brutally steep slopes. It seems as though these hills were originally a flat plain until heaps of water washed away all the softer bits and left the Ardennes behind. Between you, me, and the seatpost, this is about the best cycling country you can find in the world. But maybe someone else is onto this secret already. In fact, maybe that’s why they have so many great bike races here.
The Amstel Gold Race is the gateway drug into a three week massacre on the hills of the Ardennes. Amstel is the youngest of the classics, but by no means the easiest. This race used to finish in Maastricht, often in a small bunch sprint similar to MSR, until the organizers decided to move the finish to the top of the Cauberg outside the town of Valkenburg. A 1.5km stinger, a hill like this does not feel good when you’re off the front, trying to keep the lads breathing down your neck at bay.
Hard enough to exclude the sprinters, but not so hard the rouleurs don’t have a chance, this one is about as hard to call as they get – and I think a quick review of the scoring on the VSP thus far pretty clearly paints the picture that we collectively know fuckall about predicting races.
With that, we kick off the 2011 Velominati Super Prestige for the Amstel Gold Race. As usual, the winner of this VSP edition will earn an “Obey the Rules” bumper sticker and all reader’s points qualify towards the final prize of the free personalized Velominati Shop Apron. If you are inclined to enter, simply post your predictions for the top five placings in the designated area above the posts section, bearing in mind that entry/modification of picks closes at 5am Pacific time on the day of the race. Check the Super-Prestige main page for rules and scoring information.
A VSP Edition hardly seems complete without our requisite videos, and this time we have two. One of my nearly-namesake Frank Schleck (who’s about primed for another classics win, I would think), but the one below is actually my favorite Amstel finish; out on the original finish in Maastricht, Dekker was one of the coolest and schrewdestest riders of the last decade, and this one is a masterclass. After bridging up to Pharmstrong, he has the strength to contain Armstrongs attacks on the Cauberg and then sprints off the front to win.
Sadly this video cuts out the great attack by Pharmy which was contained by some generous helpings of Rule #5 being dished out by my boy Dekker. If anyone can find it, please point us to it.