Did you watch the Amstel Gold Race the other weekend? And if you did, did you mutter dark imprecations against whoever decided that it would no longer finish at the top of the classic Cauberg climb, just outside Valkenburg?
I muttered no such curses, and I will tell you why. It’s because I rode up the Cauberg in the 2012 World Time Trial Championships.
Most time trials vanish into the fog of memory. But I can remember quite a bit of that race, and sadly none of it is
As an early starter, I didn’t get quite the level of respect from onlookers accorded to people like Tony Martin or Taylor Phinney, who would later duke it out for the win. For instance, I had a near-death-experience when someone walking a dog crossed the road just in front of me. When I shouted a surprised warning, she waved her walking stick at me as if she was in a cartoon.
The commissaire’s car honked; I think it was probably to tell me to leave the Netherlands’ pedestrians alone.
I remember also the descent to the base of that final climb of the Cauberg. The road was steep, and was narrowed down to just a few feet by crowd barriers (preserving me from the interest of absolutely no crowds, I noticed).
There was a 120° corner at the bottom, surrounded by cafes and bars, and barriered off to about the width of a Scalextric track. It was like falling down a chimney, and eyeing-up the turn on to the hearth.
The turn was also where the Cauberg started, and started instantly. Sean Kelly, no less, had offered a solitary piece of advice. It was: “Get in the little ring before the corner, because you’re never going to get into it afterwards.”
The lethal corner was, of course, where every bloodthirsty ghoul in the Netherlands had come to stand, beer in hand, waiting for entertainment to arrive. The bottom of the hill was a fug of alcohol fumes and fag smoke. I got into the little ring.
I got round the corner. And then the misery began. Climbs at the end of TTs are great box-office, but they’re a cruel prank on a rider. Already on the limit, you’ve got no extra anaerobic oomph left. All you have is your threshold effort — not very much when the road is rising at 15 per cent.
If you’ve ever crept up a hill, running out of gears, and feeling your cadence falling past grinding and into winching, imagine doing it while several thousand drunk spectators down lager and watch. And offer editorial comment.
They did it in fully vernacular English, which was considerate, and quite impressive considering most of them were so sozzled they’d have struggled to remember their own names in Dutch. I’ve never spent so long over the last kilometre of a race. Ever. I failed to win, and by several minutes.
A few days later, I watched the men’s elite road race. I positioned myself with care, beer in hand, on the steepest part of the climb, just where I’d seen Jesus and shifted to my sprocket of last resort. It turned out to be exactly the spot where Philippe Gilbert launched his winning attack.
Still in the big ring, if you don’t mind, he whisked the pedals into an egg-beating cadence, and soared up the hill as if it was one of those Cambridgeshire drags that you need a theodolite to detect. It completely spoiled my day.
So, for me, the Cauberg is a cautionary lesson. And that lesson is this: never ride up any hill that features in the decisive final stages of a pro bike race if you want to retain any of your self-respect as a bike rider.