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Tales from the peloton, April 3, 2007

Building the Goldrace

The fact there was still a race for Arie Den Hartog to win
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Far removed from the current formalities of event organisation, Cyclingnews' Les Woodland recounts the tale of two blokes, who, somehow, managed to build the base of a modern day Spring Classic: the Amstel Gold Race.

You'd think even the dumbest race manager in the world would know not to do a U-turn on the road and drive back to meet the bunch, wouldn't you? But if there were such a man, you surely wouldn't also entrust him with organising your country's biggest pro race. Or would you?

Well, if you were Dutch, perhaps you would. Because that's just the story behind the creator of the Amstel Gold Race.

Ton Vissers was a house decorator and hockey player from Rotterdam. He didn't know much about cycling, until a friend got him started in 1963. Then he was so taken by what he saw, and such was the talk that he talked, that he was given a no-hope team to manage in the Tour of Holland. And he was as no-hope as his riders were. But chance comes to everyone once in a while and it happened that one day one of Vissers' riders got himself into the break. Vissers drove up behind him in his team car and, like all managers, went through the minutes and then hours of waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was boredom that led to what happened next. Over the radio he heard that one of his riders had punctured in the bunch. Well, there was nothing happening up front so Vissers pulled over, turned in the road and drove back towards the approaching race. Horrified officials, naturally, flung him out.

This was the man who in 1966 became manager of Willem II, Holland's only pro team worth naming. Rik Van Looy was its top rider for a while.

" Twenty days before the race, it occurred to them that they hadn't got permission to cross the Moerdijk bridge, the only way out of Rotterdam to the south."

- Woodland remembers a time when race organisation lacked organisation

Vissers had a friend called Herman Krott, who ran a car-parts firm called HeKro and, in idol-worship, worked as personal assistant to six-day rider Peter Post's. Together, Krott and Vissers started a company called Inter Sport with the aim of taking over Dutch cycling. They organised two dozen well-paying round-the-village criteriums a year and more races on the track. What they wanted, though, was a classic, a race which would make their name and their fortune.

Krott had links with the Amstel brewery, for which he looked after the company's cycling interests, and he used his connections to set up an Amstel pro team. And then in 1966 he and Vissers announced that the first Amstel Gold Race would be run on April 30, a national holiday to celebrate the queen. It would start in Amsterdam and 280km later finish at Maastricht. Wielersport, the Dutch federation's magazine, described it as being "of great international allure."

Now, in Holland, there are two big rivers. They run east to west across the country and divide it into thirds, and there are many other rivers, streams, ditches and canals which run into them. Running a race from Amsterdam to Maastricht, therefore, would be a zigzag from one bridge to the next. It would run be a lot longer than 280km.

Krott and Vissers thought about starting in Utrecht, then decided on Rotterdam. Even Maastricht got dropped in favour of the unknown village of Meerssen. Twenty days before the race, it occurred to them that they hadn't got permission to cross the Moerdijk bridge, the only way out of Rotterdam to the south.

They never did get permission, so with less than three weeks to go the route had to be redrawn, road closures negotiated, police forces asked to help. The start moved to Breda. Then the police said they weren't happy about it starting there or anywhere else because the Provos, militant hippies, had declared Holland a state of anarchy. And at the other end of the social rainbow, the Dutch were also taking to the street because the queen's daughter was marrying a German.

On April 26, with four days to go, Vissers and Krott called off their race. Their press conference had only just started when the Dutch roads ministry rang to say the race could go ahead after all - provided the organisers promised never again to run it on the Queen's birthday.

Well, it all went off well. Folk were so pleased that they overlooked that it was been won by a Frenchman, Jean Stablinski, and everyone forgot about the roads minister and the promise they'd made to him. So, it seems, did the civil servants in The Hague. The Provos got nowhere with their state of anarchy and the princess married her German, although there are still people who don't like that. The Amstel Gold Race has been run at the same time every year ever since.

The only thing that has changed is the race itself. It never did start in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Utrecht and it never again started in Breda. From 1992 it did finally finish in Maastricht and since 1998 it's also started there. It now finishes at Valkenburg.

Inter Sport, which started the race, wound up in 1970 and Herman Krott ran the race by himself until its 30th edition in 1995. It's now run by Leo van Vliet, one of the riders in the Raleigh team run by Peter Post - the very man whom Herman Krott worshipped all those years before.

Oh, before I forget, there was just one snag: the name of the race. In the 1960s, Dutch journalists were so reluctant to give free advertising that, when the Tour de France switched to trade teams, the Dutch broadcasting network covered the amateur Tour de l'Avenir instead. When professional teams had to be mentioned it was by the name of their manager or top rider rather than the sponsor.

They weren't, therefore, going to call this new race by its full commercial name. It was called the Goldrace, as one word, and to this day that is the way that many Dutchmen refer to it. But presumably Amstel don't mind too much because they're still there, aren't they?

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