The delicious and unmistakable irony of a sport contested by teams with eight-figure budgets and still more inflated ambition belonging unquestionably to the people was writ large in historic Maastricht yesterday.
The Limburg capital played host to the forty-eighth Amstel Gold Race, the eleventh event on the 2013 UCI WorldTour calendar, its picturesque Markt Square dominated by giant buses brightly painted in the colours of the global corporations who lavish fantastic sums each season on the simple, but compelling spectacle of bicycle racing.
The technology purchased with such investment was evident not only in the high-tech machinery on which the riders competed, but also in the fleets of gleaming support vehicles, the roofs of which sprouted mushroom-like antenna amid a dense foliage of spare bikes and wheels. A giant video screen relayed events from the stage to the thousands gathered in the square, behind whom a squadron of police motorcycle outriders awaited its cue. A helicopter soon flew overhead, providing an immediate visual reference for the position of the riders on a parcours whose 251km unfurled within a compact, 30km radius. Staging a race of this scale is a challenging, and above all, expensive exercise.
Athletes competing at the pinnacle of other sports are increasingly isolated from those whose support funds their existence; not so with cycling, where the riders who conetested arguably the biggest sporting event in Europe on this second weekend in April climbed aboard their machines and pedaled the short distance from bus to stage, slaloming around the spectators until the crowds become too dense and they were forced to tip-toe their way through the narrow channels that opened up before them. Within seconds, they appeared on the stage and on the big screen; a surreal juxtaposition between live and mediated event (one repeated at the end of the day when the riders who had abandoned drifted in front of the big screen at the top of the Cauberg).
None were excused the sign-on ritual. Philippe Gilbert, twice a winner at Amstel, stepped purposefully from BMC Racing’s black and red behemoth. The stage lay to his left, but the world road race champion, resplendent in the rainbow stripes, turned hard right as he stepped from the bus, and dutifully made his way along the front row of a crowd of spectators ten deep, smiling and signing autographs, before boarding his bike.
Pre-race favourite, Peter Sagan, unmissable in lime green, almost rode across my foot as he left the small enclosure in front of the Cannondale bus to ride to the start line. “Bye, bye, bye, bye, bye,” yelled his mechanic, but this was no cheery farewell; rather, an incitement to the spectators to stand back. His words fell on deaf ears. Sagan’s progress was halted almost immediately by two teenagers silently proffering clipboards and pens. If the behaviour of the riders was refreshing, it owed much to the fans. The enthusiasm of the young was tempered by respect; the older spectators, seasoned observers, one imagines, who will have watched the fortunes of generations of lean, young men played out before them, werre friendly, not awed.
Rows of sophisticated and fragile racing bicycles, each worth thousands of Euros, remained untouched, despite standing within touching distance. They were admired and inspected, often at close range, but the unspoken rule (“look, but don’t touch”) remained unspoken. There were interesting sights for the connoisseur, chief among them, Nacer Bouhanni’s Lapierre Xelius, its tiny frame combining with a sprinter’s taste for a long handlebar stem to create a machine of outlandish proportions. It is a position that works for the French champion: stage wins already this year at the Tour of Oman and Paris-Nice attest to that.
The preliminaries, by themselves worth the trip, soon ended, and the race began. The time-honoured dramas of road racing were replayed: the early, but doomed breakaway, scenes of camaraderie amid the rivalry (Team Sky’s Jon Tiernan-Locke handing a musette to a NetApp-Endura rider at the foot of the Schweibergerweg), the decisive move made while the favourites watched each other – all unfolded beneath long-overdue sunshine and in temperatures of 25 degrees. Hair-raising drives across country placed me at the roadside as the riders passed on nine occasions; others achieved the same result by bike, and many of those, your correspondent included, were among the thousands who gained a taste of the parcours the previous day in the Amstel Gold sportive.
Limburg is a beautiful region steeped in cycling history; Valkenburg and its infamous Cauberg climb, the jewel in its crown. Amstel Gold is the youngest of the Ardennes Classics, and not located even in the Ardennes; its importance to cycling in the Netherlands, however, cannot be overstated. Thousands lined the Cauberg for the dual ascent debuted at this year’s race. The efforts of the local heroes fell short: there was no victory for Blanco Pro Cycling (except perhaps in the unofficial competition for most elegant team bus). Gilbert, a Walloon, failed to reprise his world championship-winning effort on the Cauberg and claim a third Amstel in four years. Everyone, however, left happy; even, seemingly, the exhausted riders who drifted back to the team buses physically broken, but, for the most part, smiling. Professional cycling, even at its pinnacle, remains a sport, rather than a business, and as fans, able to get close to those talented enough to live our dreams, we should be pleased.
RoadCyclingUK travelled as a guest of Belgian bike brand, Ridley, supplier to the Lotto-Belisol UCI WorldTour team.