I am not what you would call an overly patriotic person. However, I do own an Australian flag. And today it made its Dutch debut, coming out to support the Aussie contingent at the Amstel Gold Race.
I hadn’t heard of the Amstel Gold Race before I came to Holland; mind you, with the country being pancake-like flat I never expected it to host a major road cycling event. But it does, and has for the past forty-six years. It’s come a long way though since 1966. The first race ended up being fifty kilometres longer than what was intended; they forgot about planned roadworks which threw a bit of a spanner in the works, so to say.
The Amstel Gold Race is a hilly one – it’s held in Limburg, the little corner of the country that doesn’t feel Dutch at all; this is the place I call the Europe of Europe. The hills of Limburg aren’t particularly high (though the Dutch call them ‘bergen’; mountains) but they are incredibly steep. I can vouch for this first-hand; the race finishes on the Cauberg in Valkenburg (notice all the ‘berg’s) which is an absolute bugger. I trekked up it when visiting last year and, even after multiple rests, I almost needed a defibrillator at the summit.
Paul and I were heading down to Limburg today anyway to visit Paul’s dad for his birthday. The race just happens to go right past his parents’ front door. My memories of the Tour de France are almost exclusively of the little French villages legendary commentator Phil Liggett would tell me about at ungodly hours of the night. To me, you don’t get much more European than those who would bring out a deck chair in their front garden in order to see Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador whiz by.
We studied the starting list and through lots of Googling and Wikipedia-ing we discovered that six Aussies were set to compete. I had no excuses, so out came my trusty Aussie flag from the bottom drawer. I was confident that I was going to be the only Aussie flag in a sea of Dutch and Belgian ones, but no. I wasn’t even in Valkenburg yet when I spied an older man with an Aussie flag sticking out of his backpack. Slightly crushed, I resigned myself to the fact that it was nigh on impossible to ever be a lone Aussie at any sort of international sporting event.
There are some sports that are entirely different when watching live compared to on television. Track and field, for example, just has so many things happening at once. Ice hockey is another one that springs to mind; the puck moves so fast that it seems invisible to the naked eye. Road cycling – with its army of support vehicles almost overshadowing the main act – is definitely another one to add to this list.
Most importantly, you’ve got to pick your sectors. We chose an uphill section down the road from the Bezemers’, and another two hours later on the other side of the village Eys. Between the two sections, we watched it all up close on the television, making mental notes of who we were supposed to cheer for.
The first section, despite being uphill, went by in an instant. I was all set to cheer on Cadel Evans, Australia’s Tour de France champion, but as he was part of the peloton at that stage he was simply just part of a sea of lycra. The other fancied Australian, Milan-San Remo winner Simon Gerrans, was even less noticeable. I didn’t know what he looked like so all I knew was his team colour and his number. Problem is, their numbers are on their backs. Even if I recognised him, he would have been a hundred metres ahead by the time I could have let out a ‘Go, Aussie!’
So I was really just left with shaking my flag and yelling out a non-specific and pretty pathetic ‘yeeeeaaaahh’. A few Lleyton Hewitt-inspired ‘come on’s may have also escaped my mouth. My highlight of the first section was getting an excited toot from Cadel’s team car when I shook the flag pretty much on their bonnet.
We returned some time later – fed, watered and warmed in front of the open fire – to catch the closing stages on the Eyserbosweg. This hill was much steeper, to the point where I conked out three-quarters of the way up and decided that was as good a place as any to set up camp. At this point, the cyclists were hurting. Their bikes were moving from side to side at improbable angles with every push of the pedal.
They were more spread out by this point and I was confident of giving Cadel a good ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ if I was brave and maybe even a ‘Go Pies!’ if I was feeling cheeky. But no Cadel. Plenty of hurting, grimacing Italians, but no Cadel.
I waved my flag around anyway. It amused the locals, at least. Later I was to discover that Cadel retired about an hour before the finish, nowhere near the leaders. The surprise winner ended up being Italian Enrico Gasparotto, who won it in the last sprint up the dizzying heights of the 141m Cauberg.
Although it ended up being a bit of an Aussie fizzer for me, I still caught the buzz. And cycling home tonight, I attempted to conquer the three-metre high Ruitenbrug at the end of our street, something I always avoided as you have to slow down on the approach and then immediately turn right uphill. With my dodgy gears locked in third gear for the past fortnight, the odds were against me. But I was carrying an Aussie flag in my handbag, dammit. And this alone allowed me to climb to the top and zoom down on descent.* The spirit of Cadel, I tell you!
* Or, you may wish to believe the alternative version which involves me coming to a complete halt halfway up the bridge, and having to walk it the rest of the way up. It’s completely up to you.