Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Geography Lesson for Cyclists

OK, I am writing this from the Netherlands. For too many of my friends (and probably myself up until one week ago) knowledge of this country stopped at Austin Powers’ Goldmember. 

OK, I knew more than that.
But when trying to understand just about any other culture, start with a map. Maps help one understand all sorts of issues: cultural, economic, linguistic, and athletic. 

So open up a map of The Netherlands and then we will continue. Go on…..I will wait…….
Good, you are back.

Try to follow along. Copenhagen, where I worked last year,  is a city; Limburg is not. Limburg is a province of the Netherlands. It dangles down between Germany to the East and Belgium to the west, like a Dutch epiglottis. OK, that helps to explain a little bit of language. Dutch is sort of German with a filter. And Flemish is sort of Dutch with a French filter. And then you have the English and those whacky Scandinavians coming through on occasion. 

Weirder still is that Spain actually ran the Netherlands for a while until a) the Dutch simply could not stand being so uptight about sex, and b) the Brits scored one of the biggest upsets in naval history in 1588. Somewhere in there is the story of why these folks wear the color orange.  (Go read, it is awesome stuff.)

Cyclists today view Holland as a cycling utopia. But there are different reasons. For my advocate friends, much is made of Amsterdam and its massive amount of mode share by bike.  Indeed the Dutch embrace cycling as well as anybody. It is fantastic. 

But those into the sport of cycling will rally around Maastricht and Limburg, the province. Get out your map. Look at the proximity to Belgium and such cities as Liege. It is right there.  All the great cyclo-cross, Amstel Gold, and everything else that is fantastic about Dutch racing. Just to the south in Germany is Aken. To the west in Belgium is Hasselt and to the south is Liege.

But part of it I discovered while driving from Brussels to Maastricht, taking in all the flat landscape.

And then you drop into the valley of the Meure, or the Maas (as the river is called in Dutch), and the terrain changes. The Limburg region is defined by fertile plains with these pronounced ridges. 

I discovered these on my first day here riding with Theodore Essenfeld and his son, Ryjder, who is 9.  I was on a 52 cm bike but enjoying being outside (typically I ride a 55). After puttering about on the bike paths we worked our way towards Valkenburg, where I had a rehearsal for awards.

En route we encountered the cyclo-sportive, with 7,000 riders. Wow. We followed the group. We ended up on a bike path that gouged into these ravines with sharp, overgrown cliffs to our right. There were chalk caves in which I learned the Dutch resistance used during World War II to hide. As a history nut, I drank it in. As a cyclist, I got it. I saw cyclo-cross courses and mountain bike trails and roads woven throughout. 

And this, I would learn, is only in the Limburg province.

We came into Valkenburg. Whistles blew and paddles waved. 

Wow. Team Rabobank came roaring through the turn on their practice TTT ride. Later came Movistar.

And we were rolling through the final turn before the Cauberg, the climb that leads to the finish of the Amstel Gold race. With thousands of riders on the road, I scaled the Cauberg  with this 9-year old boy. The crowds were already clapping and this boy got extra applause.

By New England standards, the Cauberg is a pussy climb. But with a Pro Tour field going up this thing at 40 km/hour  to finish I can only imagine the suffering it inflicts. And there are dozens of them in the Limburg region. And after scaling several of them in the 100k leading into the finish circuit on Sunday, the pro men will then go up the Cauberg 10 times.  Oh yeah, there is another climb, the Bemelberg, on the backstretch. 

Did I mention that I have had fantastic weather? If the North Sea thinks otherwise, this place can be a crosswind cool zone of mist and rain. I love the lowlands the way I love New England. 

Everybody, from the pro cyclists to the postal worker to the old lady to the 12-year-old school girl has something others lack: resolve.

Geography does this.  

This world championship is ambitious. There is just one finish venue in Valkenburg. But there are six different start venues: Sittard, Landgraf, Eijsden, Heerlen (where Eddy Merckx beat Jan Janssen in 1967 to win his first of three world titles), Valkenburg and then Maastricht. 

The Eneco Tour, The Tour of Limburg, the Valkenberg Cyclocross, the Amstel Gold Race and of course this World Championships, the sixth time the UCI has selected this province to host its grandest ball. 
But this entire region is dripping in cycling history that the American charity ride fans will miss by going to l’Alpe d’Huez. I stumble about…..there is Jan Jaansen,  there is Henni Kuiper, Leontien Van Moorsel, Jan Raas, Peter Post, and Leo Van Vliet…Will I see Joop Zoetelmelk? How cool is a country that names a guy “Joop”?
And then there is the bike culture…I need sleep. More to come.
Thanks for reading.

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