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How organizers saved the Amstel Gold Race

After seeing the 2020 edition canceled, race organizers came up with a circuit course that serves riders and health concerns alike.

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Barring a last-minute disaster, the Amstel Gold Race will be contested Sunday over the steep hills of the Netherlands’ Limburg region on its scheduled date.

Men’s and women’s racers will be churning their legs up and over the famous Cauberg climb that’s served as decider in the Dutch classic and world championships for decades.

That will be a thing of beauty for race organizers.

A year ago, the Netherlands’ most famous one-day race was on the ropes. The widening coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to delay the race, only to see it canceled outright last fall when a new wave of infections swept across Benelux.

Flash forward to this weekend, and race organizer Leo van Vliet is breathing a sigh of relief.

“Two years ago, we had the best race ever with Mathieu van der Poel. Last year, we had nothing,” van Vliet told VeloNews. “We will be very happy on Sunday once we race again.”

Van Vliet — a former pro who’s run and organized the Amstel Gold Race since he retired in the late 1980s — could only watch helplessly as forces larger than himself swept over the sport. Fearing the worst, officials in the Netherlands took a heavy hand, and shut down the race, not once but twice.

“It was frustrating watching other races on TV. Watching the Tour de France was not good for us. There were too many people, and everyone was afraid of that,” van Vliet said in a telephone interview. “When things got worse in September, it was not good for us, and the race was canceled.

“It was different when we started talking in January,” he said. “It was difficult again, but the government people we spoke with said, ‘let’s look at what is possible, not what is not possible.’ That was the big difference from a year ago.”

That was all van Vliet and his team needed to hear.

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Instead of being afraid of the pandemic, health authorities, policy makers and other officials are now willing to work around it. When discussions began a few months ago about the prospect of holding the race this month, van Vliet knew he had to come up with something different.

Officials didn’t want to see the wide-open traditional Amstel Gold course that started in the packed central market of Maastricht and wandered across the Limburg region before ending on the hills above Valkenburg.

The answer? A shortened COVID loop course that will be completely closed off to fans.

Van Vliet was able to follow the blueprint used in previous editions of world championships, which usually contested over circuit courses. Though he could not stray too far from the closed circuit, meaning some of the iconic climbs and roads of the route had to be culled, the essence of Amstel Gold Race remains intact.

“We have a nice circuit that will make for a good race,” van Vliet said. “It’s a little bit shorter than normal, but we still have about 2,800m of climbing. It’s a race for the big riders.”

The races will be held on a 16.9km circuit featuring loops over three key climbs — the Geulhemmerberg, the Bemelerberg and the Cauberg. Organizers had already tweaked the finish line a few years, moving the line further away from the Cauberg. Two years ago, they added a new twist, with a deviation off the circuit on the final lap that tackles the Bemelerberg.

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That’s the same approach that opened the door for van der Poel’s miracle finale in 2019, and it’s back even as part of the revised circuit course. The women’s race, which was brought back in 2017, is 116km on seven laps while the men fight it out on 219km.

Also gone are the beer tents and raucous parties that punctuate the race, always one of the first coming out parties each spring for the rabid Dutch cycling fans.

“There will be no VIP tents, and we are asking people to stay home,” van Vliet said. “It will be strange to see the race this way, because already by Thursday and Friday before the race, there are already some nice parties. This is a special year we hope.”

Van Vliet, who lives in a boathouse along a canal in Amsterdam, hopes everything is back to normal in 2022, beer tents and all.

Kasia Niewiadoma took one of the biggest wins of her career at the 2019 Amstel Gold Race
Kasia Niewiadoma took one of the biggest wins of her career at the 2019 Amstel Gold Race Photo: Getty Images