Amstel Gold Race: “This is not a love song”

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Words by Joe Parkin

Remember when I recently wrote here about how much I love Gent-Wevelgem? Or when I wrote my love letter to Paris-Roubaix over on Cycling Tips? Well, in the immortal words of the great Johnny Rotten, “This is not a love song.”

By this point in the great quarantine of 2020, you’re a stellar cook, you’re super organized, you’ve got disgustingly ripped abs, you’ve taught yourself how to play the entire Led Zeppelin catalog on the violin and banjo, and you’ve read “Crime and Punishment” in the original Russian.

Or you’ve memorized all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” while you’ve been riding your bike all over your house and binging on Oreos — and you’re wondering if the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic has a program for you.

If you relate with the former category, it’s entirely possible that you’d do well at the Amstel Gold Race. If, right now, you’re looking at your keyboard and seeing Oreo crumbs, you might want to stick to Amstel the beer rather than Amstel the race.

The Amstel Gold Race is the artsy diorama of Classics. It’s the ship-in-a-bottle of World Tour bike races. The most delightfully foul-mouthed bike rider I ever had the pleasure of sharing asphalt with, Robert Millar, dubbed it the Tour of the Roundabouts. Which is absolutely spot-on.

Imagine the gun going off to start one of the biggest, most prestigious, most important single-day bike races of the professional calendar, and, before you’ve even pedaled enough to get your chamois settled, you’ve made 36 left-hand turns and about a dozen rights. And that doesn’t begin to account for the roundabouts.

In 1966, some Dutch dudes decided that they were tired of Belgium, France and Italy having all the Classics, so they engineered their own. As was the fashion back then, it was a lengthy beast. Merckx didn’t ride it until ’73, and it wasn’t much more than a redheaded stepchild until Jan Raas decided to make his own yearly Dutch-flag celebration for four years in a row (’77-’80).

Sure enough, the list of Amstel Gold winners makes it a legit badass bike contest — but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a complete shit race.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still catching my breath from watching my old teammate’s kid Mathieu win the 2019 version, after perhaps executing the most insanely incredible closing kilometers of any bike race ever ridden. And could I have had a top-10 finish at Amstel Gold, I would be absolutely stoked. And I wish I could watch it this coming weekend.

But it is still a shit race.

The Amstel Gold Race is a strange hybrid. It’s not quite the race for a pure cobbled-Classics specialist, and it’s not quite the terrain of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne set, either. And yeah, you can haul out your terrain maps and math all you want, but it doesn’t add up; Amstel is just plain weird.

I rode it once. Which makes me an expert, by no means. I remember that I got a couple bottles of Amstel Light when I signed on at the start, and I remember talking to Bob Roll and Gert-Jan Theunisse, and marveling out how absolutely tiny Theunisse’s ass was proportionate to the rest of him.

The rest of the race was nothing but confusion. From the start until I crashed was essentially the same feeling as coming out of anesthesia. From the moment I crashed until ultimately quitting the race was only slightly more coherent.

Twenty-five years later, I visited the Amstel Gold again to do a magazine story about what it’s like to follow the race. To be honest, I was just as confused as a reporter and spectator as I was a competitor. A guy from the Czech Republic, who rode for a Russian team, won the race. The performance was impressive as hell, but the fanfare seemed a bit token. Or maybe it was just that I was having a flashback to my late-‘80s anesthesia. I never did finish that magazine story.

If you ask me, I think we should replace the Amstel Gold Race with the G.P. Briek Schotte, and call it a day. If you don’t know who Briek Schotte is, just type the word Flandrien into your favorite search engine. If a picture of Briek doesn’t show up near the top, you’re using the wrong search engine.

Also known as Desselgem Koers, the G.P. Schotte is what we lovingly used to call a Kermiskoers. Briek himself won the first three of them in a row, in the years 1941-’42 and then 1942 again. It took until 1991 for a non-Belgian rider to win the G.P. Schotte. Walter is the only Plankaert not to win it.

And here’s the thing: If you want a race with a shitload of turns, this is your race. I am pretty sure I raced Desselgem at least three times, and I am pretty sure that the course I rode had between 150 and 500 turns per lap, for at least 12 laps.

Laps, you see, is the operative word here. By lap number 3, you have an idea of what you’re doing and can escape the confusion or just quit. At the Amstel Gold Race, someone is going to turn in front of you and you will follow again and again, but you’ll never completely grasp just what in the hell you’re doing until it is over or until you quit.

Seriously, if you want to know what it’s like to ride the Amstel Gold, go to your local bottle shop, knock back a six-pack or two, sprint to the local Laundromat, fill one of those giant dryers with quarters, jump in and ask one of the tweakers over in the corner playing video games to push start for you. And don’t get out for at least three-and-a-half hours. Shit race.

But I would take back every mean thing I have said about this race to be able to watch Mathieu Van der Poel and the rest of them go at it this coming weekend.