Posted by Editoress on 11/13/10
My (almost) race against the pros - by Jeff Tilbury
It was November 9, 2009 and I happened to be surfing the cycling WebPages when I came across a story about Alberto Contador winning the Amstel Curacao race. Being somewhat of a cycling fan, I was surprised I had never heard of this race, especially since I saw Alberto's name along with the Schleck brothers, and Mark Cavendish, only to name a few of the pros also taking part in the race. As I read more about the race I discovered this was an event where anyone could ride against/with the pros and take in a week of different activities, where you could also mingle and interact with them. With some further research, I discovered that Curacao was a beautiful Island in the southern Caribbean Sea, only 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast. I thought, here is a perfect opportunity for a vacation with my spouse, and to indulge myself as a cycling fan. So the planning began.
I checked out the cycling scene in Curacao on the web and found out that they have a very active cycling community, as can be seen by the very busy road and mountain bike race calendars, and the number of different clubs that exist on this relativity small Dutch island.
I noticed in my review of the local cycling calendars that one of the local Road bike races was scheduled for the Saturday before the Amstel Curacao race, so this provided the perfect reasoning to present a proposal for a two week long vacation to my spouse instead of just one week. It would also give me some time to see what cycling in Curacao is all about.
After some contact with the Lions Dive & Beach Resort and the race organizer Leo Van Vliet, I was able to get a room for us for the two weeks at the Lions Dive, the host resort where the riders who attend the event also stay.
I then spent my spring, summer and fall months racing different events and putting in as many training miles as I could, in the hopes that I could stay in the group with the pros for a few kilometres past the neutralized start zone.
The plan was to arrive in Curacao on October 24th, a good week before the local race, and end our two week vacation with participating in the Amstel Curacao and then travel out the Sunday after the big event. Arriving this early also gave me the opportunity to do some pre riding and try and get adjusted to the heat and very high humidity.
Upon arriving in Curacao at the Lions Dive, we quickly realized this is a very sport and activity friendly resort, offering guests a full weight room with an array of equipment to work any muscle in your body. For the swimmers (which I am not), the resort boasts a beautiful three lane 50 meter outdoor pool, which the local University swim team trains at, and has one of the best views of the Caribbean Sea that you will see anywhere. The resort provides different activities, such as aqua sports and trail running on the nearby Mountain Bike trails designed by Bart Brentijens, which hosted the first UCI World Cup event of the 2006 Mountain bike season.
The trail winds its way past one of the local Salinas, which is an inland body of salt water where, I am told, you can often see hundreds of Pink Flamingos. However, the day we went with Will and Katja Vogels, the husband and wife management team from the Lions Dive, on the 4.5 km run we only saw a handful of the birds. We found out that because of the recent (unusual) heavy rain fall in Curacao there has been too much water in the Salina's for the Flamingos.
I spent several days riding around Curacao and was surprised at how varied and challenging the terrain actually was. The City of Willemstad is build around the main harbor and is a very busy city with narrow streets, with hardly any shoulder to them. You do encounter lots of broken glass and potholes and other road hazards that you have to watch out for. With that said, I was very pleased to see how cycling-friendly the local drivers are, as they seem to be very patient with cyclists, giving you lots of room and often staying behind you until they know it is safe to pass you. Not like in North America, where a lot of drivers are willing to ride you off the road to get past you on your bike.
One of the most enjoyable things about cycling around Curacao were the views. Because it is a small island you are never very far from some new and spectacular view of the Caribbean, the coast line and the mountains of the northern part of the island, through Christoffel National Park.
As week one passed and we entered into our second week at the Lions Dive resort we slowly watched the resort transform itself from guests in neoprene diving suits exploring the depths of the sea, to ones clad in spandex racing kits and bad cycling tans, bringing their bikes with them for an early breakfast so they can get out on the road before the temperatures got too hot.
Saturday (October 30th) was the local bike race, called the AA Drink Cup that I had signed myself up for. I was up bright and early, as the race had a 7:30 am start and I had a six km ride to get from the resort to the start line at the Nieuwe Haven (Dutch for Free Zone), which is the Customs facility for the Harbor in Willemstad.
As I was leaving the resort I ran into two cyclists from Holland (Jan and Marcel) preparing to go for a morning ride, after some conversation they decided to ride over to the race start area and see if they could also get into the local event. We arrived at the Free Zone and, after some conversation in Dutch, Jan and Marcel were able to get into the race but would be riding without race numbers.
As the race instructions were given completely in Dutch I was glad I had met my new friends from Holland, since they were able to translate for me and inform me that the race for each different category had been shortened by one lap. So now I was doing 75 km instead of the 90 km I had thought I was doing. I must say I felt relieved, as I was having some doubt about whether I could manage 90 km as the heat increased throughout the morning.
All categories started the race together and we had a police escort, since the 15 km loop that we were racing on was around the main harbor in the middle of Willemstad and the road was not closed to traffic. The first obstacle of the day was the climb up the steep Julianna Bridge, which caused me and others to fall back from the main peloton just behind the support vehicles and in between the first main chase group.
After a few kilometers of some fast descending and fast flat sections I was slowly making some ground at getting myself back into the main peloton and then at the 10 km mark of the first lap I made the mistake of going around the pedestrian side of a traffic light that had turned red so I did not have to stop for traffic. Remember, I said the road was open to traffic? Well, this was a busy traffic hub for the island so it was heavy traffic at times, and once out of the main peloton riders were left to fend for themselves, without the police escort. So I made a quick decision to go to the pedestrian side of a red light and must have either hit a sharp object or some glass as I immediately heard that dreaded pssssttt sound coming from my rear tire. I got off my bike and was having a fairly quick tube change and was getting ready to inflate it as the chase group was just going by, so I though 'Ok, this is not so bad, I might be able to catch back up to them and continue the race'.
I attached my CO2 cartridge to the stem and started to inflate, and I am not sure what happened, I either did not have the value open enough or the cartridge I picked up at the local bike shop did not work with my fitting for it, and it blew off the stem without any inflation to the tube. Ok, stay calm, I have a pump. I grab my pump attach it to the stem and start pumping, and as I slowly see my tire start to fill up, the stem breaks, a few of the riders who were the stragglers go past me at this point. Ok, my race is over but I think well at least I can get my other tube in and finish the event getting some miles on my legs.
I get my other spare tube in and start to pump it up, nothing, the head of my pump is damaged and very little air is coming out. I can't even get enough air in the tube to ride slowly back to the start line. My day is done. I start walking, watching for the main peloton to go by on their second lap, and as they do I am able to get picked up by one of the support vehicles and dropped back at the start line. As the peloton goes by me I did not see my new friends Jan or Marcel, so I am thinking they also must have got dropped by the main group. I get back to the finish line and I am able to borrow a pump to get enough air in my tire to ride it back to the resort.
Before heading back I decide to become a spectator and wait for Jan and Marcel to finish so we can all ride back to the resort as I had no more spare tubes and still had 6 km to get myself back to the Lions Dive.
I watch as all the riders complete their second lap, some groups finish but still no Jan or Marcel. I see the main peloton go by for the third lap; I think maybe [Jan and Marcel] found the traffic as unnerving as I did and decided to go for a ride instead as they had planned before. I finish watching all the racers finish. And then ride the 6 km back to the resort without any more bad luck.
I did run into Jan and Marcel the next day and found out that Jan's derailleur snapped and took out several spokes in his rear wheel, just as he started going up the bridge on the second lap. His friend Marcel decided to ride home with him, as Jan hitched a ride back to the resort on the back of a scooter carrying his bike over his shoulder. So their day had ended early as well. I was hoping this was all the bad luck done with prior to the main Amstel race next Saturday.
By Monday (November 1st) most of the pro riders have arrived, and on Tuesday there was a planned group pre-ride of the route. However, Monday evening Hurricane Tomas starts dumping huge amounts of rain all through the night and the ride is cancelled - because of the water some of the roads are not safe to be on. The rain stops mid morning Tuesday and the pre ride gets rescheduled to Thursday.
Tuesday evening kicked off the beginning of a busy week of activities for riders and fans. It began with the water spectacle at the Lions Dive pool, where the relay team of Andy Schleck, Jacob Furlong, a friend of the Schlecks' (Christian) and Amstel organization staff (Judith) were the overall winners. I think Andy Schleck has a career in Triathlon if cycling does not work out for him, he is a serious swimmer. Wednesday evening consisted of a Pasta Party and beach volley ball at Mambo beach just a short stroll down the beach from Lions dive.
Thursday was the group pre-ride of the 80 km course, however, none of the pros rode this, as they must have been saving their legs for the Jan Thiel Criterium later that day. The criterium was open to all, pros and other riders as well, I decided to opt out as I had chosen to do the course pre-ride in the morning. As well, I found that I had some leg cramping, as I was still not used to the heat and keeping enough fluid in my body. And I wanted to take some pictures as well.
The crit consisted of a 60 minute plus 3 laps speed fest on the 1.8 km closed course around some tight turns, up a short climb and a very fast downhill that sped into a tight curving section of road before looping back on itself through the start finish area. Koos Moerenhout (Rabobank) was the winner. After the Criterium there was a huge BBQ for riders and fans at Zanibar. Friday was rider registration and then a quiet evening for most.
Saturday (November 7th) we woke up to beautiful blue skies and what looked a like a wonderful day to race. Many of the 291 riders spent the morning getting some last minute sun tanning in or sitting in the shade to try and avoid the heat of the day, before the 2:00 pm start time. By 12:30 riders were in their race kits and starting to congregate in the lobby and outside the Lions Dive around the start area. I noted as well several people were looking to the sky, as some very dark clouds started to move towards us from the east.
No, it was going to be a nice day, I thought, I had all the bad luck last Saturday. Shortly after 1:00 pm a few rain drops, nothing to worry about, but still the dark clouds moving in from the East. 1:30 pm a few more drops and people looking for shelter as the skies opened up and poured ( and I mean poured) for about an hour and a half.
Close to 3: 00 pm it started to slow and I was somewhat hopeful to start to race, yet tentative because of possible road conditions. However, in consultation with local police it was decided the roads and amount of water still on them made it too dangerous for riders, and the Amstel organization made the right decision in cancelling the day and trying to hold a shorter event the next day on a closed Criterium course again near Jan Thiel. Unfortunately for me, we were scheduled to fly out in the morning before the rescheduled event, and I never got to indulge myself in racing against/with the pros. I guess there is always next year.
There was a meet and greet with the riders after the Saturday cancelation and we were able to meet with all the riders in their team kits. So I was able to get autographs from the Schlecks, Jacob Fuglsang, Niki Terpstra, Jurgen Van den Broek, Tony Martin, Alesandro Petacchi, Danilo Honda, Matio Bono, Wout Poels, Koos Moerenhout, Bauke Mollema, and Grisha Nierman.
I was not able to attend the rescheduled event on Sunday as we were already on the plane heading back home. Frank Schleck was the winner. Even though I did not get to indulge myself against the pros in a race, it was a great experience, it was very well organized event and you felt that you were part of something pretty big all week. I do suggest that if you are thinking about going to Curacao next year for the Amstel week that you contact Leo Van Vliet through PromaTravel.com and spend the money for the VIP package which gives you full access to all the events (activities, meals etc) planned.
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