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Le Cycle Ardennais
An Ardennes Classic Triple Treat by Phil Deeker
When Phillipe Gilbert secured his third Ardennes classic last Sunday, he became the first Belgian to win the ‘classic triple’ and only the second rider to do so in history. Given that I live within an hour's drive of the start of all three of the Ardennes classics, it would almost be impolite not to honour these bastions of the racing calendar by riding the amateur versions of them as best as I could.
Amstel Gold Sportive
16th April 2011
So there I was, at 6am, at the start village in Valkenburg on Saturday morning with the first few hundred of the thousands of participants. Of the 70,000 people that attempted to register, just 12,000 got lucky in the 20 minutes it took to sell all the places. Naturally only the keenest had chosen to ride the longest of the four distance options. I had unfinished business from last year. On that occasion, Rapha’s Graeme Raeburn and myself had again tried to ride the full 250km route but realised, as the beer tents at the top of the Cauberg came into sight with our Garmins reading 146km, that we must have followed a wrong arrow somewhere. This time round, I spotted our mistake of twelve months previously within the first five kilometres: the arrow for 250km “1er Maals” pointed right; while the arrow for 250km “2er Maals” pointed left. Discovering that maal is the Dutch word for ‘lap’ proved a hard lesson to learn. This time I went right, starting the 100km loop that every one-day classic begins with. As mundane leg-sappers go, this one was actually quite pleasant. A lot of quiet, wide cycle lanes and a couple of short climbs just to test the legs. I seemed to come out unscathed, both legs present. Arriving back at the start with 100 kilometres already in the legs and into a swollen mass of cyclists is fine: you simply use it as an excuse not to follow the fastest wheel; or you simply give yourself a pat on the back.
From now on the roads remained pretty crowded all day. But that, as I realised when watching the pro race the next day, is part of the nature of this race. Just like us, the pros had to fight for a space in the gutter when the road was already taken. And just like us, they needed to be pretty alert all day long, testing their bike-handling skills on a couple of close ones.
With marshalls stopping traffic at every junction for cyclists, it was as close to rolling closures as you could get. I managed an average of 28kph, which, for me, was fast enough. I only managed that thanks to the marshalls as well as the respect accorded by more sedate participants to us fast-lane riders. In fact, I recall only having to mumble “Hop! Links!” on very few occasions.
I had to be as discreet as possible since I was very aware of being an unnumbered rider; when I say there were 12,000 riders on the road, I have to confess there were in fact 12,001 but surely one more wouldn’t make that much difference? I carried my own food and filled my bidon just once with water in order to keep my conscience as clear as possible. Nevertheless, I could feel more than a few glances at my ‘bare’ bars. All official riders wore big numbers on their backs, too. After a few hours I found myself in a quite useful group of five. It was then I spotted that, as well as the numbers, each riders also had their name printed on the dossard. Now I love the Dutch and I even have relatively close Dutch ancestors but I had to laugh at the collection of names I had around me: in front there was Jop and Joost while beside me pedalled Milly (a bloke); and behind Arjo and Freek. Milly didn’t hang around for long but the other four were good company for a bit, all speaking perfect English, as most Dutch do. At the next feed station, they plunged into the mass of Rabobank and Skil-Shimano jerseys and I lost them as I slinked around the side. I did, however, manage to find Jop and Joost a few kilometres up the road and we rode as a trio for a couple of hours. Joost (in a Cervelo jersey) was a strong climber who I almost managed to keep up with on the ‘bergs’, whereas Jop (in a Kelme) was a big rouleur and did all the work for us on the flats; well worth waiting for after the effort of the hills.
Somewhere on the Camerig, one of the longest climbs, we lost one another again but by this time there were lots of wheels to choose from. The Eyserbosweg and of course the Keutenberg (after which Andy Schleck attacked in the pro race) were pretty crowded, and only a clever few could smash it. Then, on the Cauberg, everyone got to have a go as the road became a touch wider. As I gasped my last breaths of the Amstel Gold sportive for 2011, I caught the sullen voice on the PA reading out the names of the finishers. He was something else I remembered from last year. What could he have done to be given the onerous job of reading out 12,000 names two years running? Maybe I will ask him next year.