Beyondness of Things
By Neil Storey
Opening the third bottle of wine was, on mature reflection, probably a bit of a mistake. Not, I should hasten to add, 'cos the quality wasn't good - far from it, it was fantastic. Nope, more to do with the fact that it was after two in the morning and, a mere four and a half hours later, Sabine Sunderland would have the unenviable prospect of raising the dead (that's me) from her son Saen's bed. But, of course we did open the bottle - and she did manage to wake me - we did stagger to the car and - amazingly, we made the journey from Zottegem to Maastricht on time. Spookily enough, at the exact same moment as last year, the Lampre team vehicles, festooned as ever with their Barbie-pink bikes joined the Liege to Maastricht stretch of the road as we did. We wondered in which car Frank Vandenbrouke was hiding his daft beard while Bono crooned 'It's a Beautiful Day' on the stereo and the clouds above and ahead turned from grey to plain murky. Yep - it's April in Holland and we're at The Amstel Gold once again.
Follow the Lampre convoy - who, as only teams cars do - jump red lights with aplomb, we park on the bridge over the River Maas before walking down to the Markt, the main square in Maastricht, where the officials, groupies, soigneurs, hangers-on, photographers, team cars, journalists and crowds all gather. Sheltered within this seething mass of humanity are the riders and, somewhere in there will be Scotty.
After circumnavigating the town square (twice) we can see no sign of him, the Fakta team car, team mates - nothing. Along the side of the square is a market - usual vegetables and flowers and stuff like that. Conveniently laid up against one of the stalls is a ladder - and on this ladder is a burly Dutchman. It is their race after all. Now, the great thing about every person in Holland is that they speak perfect English. And so, within seconds, the big Dutch-fella understands our plight and has climbed down off his perch and Sabine's up there scanning the crowd of team-cars and riders for any sign of the Fakta boys. Nothing. Yikes.
Vainsteins hoves into view, all massive thighs and matching buttocks with his ridiculous mini-ponytail, an unflattering shade of yellow which neither matches his world champion's jersey, the colour of the rest of his hair or his bike. It is evident that the hand of the fashion police have yet to lay their hands on the M'sieur Vainsteins' epaulettes.
Hincapie and Armstrong ride slowly past, all tall arrogance and unsmiling behind all-pervading dark glasses while Rabobank's Boogerd and Dekker happily pause to autograph fan's offerings beside us as photographers and camera-crews scuttle back and forth, treading on each other to get pictures of the favourites for Dutch TV. Its no use, we can't see Scott at all. But, by now we know the boys are here COs we've seen two of the Fakta team queuing for the porta-loos. Contact will have to be via the bat 'phone. Sabine's doesn't work for some strange reason thus mine comes into play - she hooks up with Peter (the Fakta DS) and a message is gotten to Scott. He cruises up to the crash barrier behind which we are, looking way thinner than ever and very, very nervous. A few rapid words are exchanged before he disappears back into the throng while we head off to the car on the bridge and await the riders passing by.
Kilometre 0 - 254 to go: The Bridge over The Maas, Maastricht
The weak sun that's attempting to poke its nose through the early morning cloud cover is fighting a losing battle as the huge peloton streams by. Many (but surprisingly not all) of the riders are in rain capes, knee warmers and gloves. At the rear, Scott's animatedly chattering to former teammate Cedric Vasseur - now one of Armstrong's henchmen in USPS - with Paris Roubaix winner, Domo's Servais Knaven close behind. One can only wonder as the long string of riders whirr by, the air permeated by the heady scent of embrocation, just how many are going to be there when the race finishes in another seven or so hours. Sixty, seventy? Who knows?
Cleverly, the mega map that had aided our progress round the parcours last year had been left back in Zottegem and so, as the bunch head north out of the city, it was off to the nearest garage for coffee and map purchasing.
Kilometre 38 - 216 to go: Lange Raarberg (3rd climb)
Last year, we'd managed to position ourselves all wrong in order to see the action early on. But, with the map (it's impossible to overstate how vital a decent map is especially for a race like the Amstel) we negotiate the short distance to Meerlen, over the endless ranks of sleeping policemen with Sabine's windscreen-wipers at full bore. The rain is hammering down as we drive up between the massed ranks of the Dutch, lining this hill well in advance of the peloton coming through.
Parking at the top, we watch as the first group come through with the main bunch with Scotty at the back at about 15 seconds and a number of stragglers including Fakta's Manu L'Hoir who looks distinctly uncomfortable in the rain and the cold. Usually, at this time in a race, the peloton would be content to ride piano - but not so, its more animated than expected and they're shifting - hmmm. Game on.
Kilometre 68 - 185 to go: Valkenburg - the foot of the Cauberg (6th climb)
Parking illegally on a side street as the heavens open, we quickly walk to the foot of this berg - one of the most mythical in the cycling world. The crowds, already as dense as humanly imaginable, are neatly portioned on either side of the road by crash barriers. We quickly squeeze under the awning of one of the many bars that stretch back from the epicentre of the three-way cross roads The rain is now an incessant Dutch downpour
Its midday and the bar behind us is already awash with revellers, the beer flowing fast - Sabine leans over, saying, there's a man next to me and it feels like he's about to lick my neck. We both glare at him but it seems more likely that he's trying to gain shelter under an umbrella made for one. The official cars keep coming through, grinding to a halt on the dead bend which requires the riders to turn sharp left at the foot of this climb while the ruined castle stands gaunt and forbidding above the little town.
The rain causes the tarmac to glisten - with the riders' arrival time drawing nearer, the Valkenburg PA system wheezes into life, serenading us with jaunty disco anthems - mmm, nice - Police on motorcycles arrive, each sporting a more improbably sized moustache than the next, one with a greying handle-barred monster which, in the damp conditions, is sadly starting to look a trifle bedraggled. On a warm day it must be a magnificent specimen.
On the opposite side of the corner are (obvious) guests of Rabobank; be-suited, bemused and bedraggled, they're a long way from the welcome shelter of their more normal corridors of banking power, huddled together under their Rabobank umbrellas, with their Rabobank musettes dangling from their arms containing food prepared by Rabobank minions sipping delicately on Rabobank bought coffee. Meanwhile, on our side of the road, the noisy Belgians that have congregated in the bar behind us have thrown a sizeable quantity of ale down their throats and spotted the bankers. Time for a spot of good-natured baiting of the bewildered suits by deifying their great hero Johan Museeuw in tuneless song - since a) he doesn't ride for Rabobank but for their deadliest rivals Domo -Farm Frites and b) isn't Dutch.
All part of the build up to the appearance of the leading group who swish through the puddles, round the corner led by two Mapei's, Hincapie and Tchmil, looking ominously strong - they're gone almost before they arrive. Shortly after, the peloton hurtle through. There are already tired legs in there with a small group off the back, never to see the front again. Even before the cars have come through, we're off back to ours and to the next scheduled stop, the Loorberg.
Kilometre 99 - 154 to go: The Loorberg (9th climb)
The route there has taken us through the edge of Gulpen, followed by a drop down to the picture-postcard pretty village of Slenaken - where much needed supplies of rolls and ham are purchased, over the small babbling brook which passes for a river and up the other side - the Loorberg itself - wriggling snake like ever upwards through the woods, leaves struggling to escape from seemingly dead branches. At nearly two kilometres in length, its not that vicious a climb but the twists and turns as it rises to the top will be enough to hurt any legs, especially when they come up here for the second time when the race is in the finale.
The crowds are dense as the first group come through led by the omnipresent Tchmil, his red and white hair-net helmet askew, sweat glistening on his brow, ploughing a lone furrow and towing the break away. Watches set and when the bunch comes through, Sabine times the break at over 8 minutes ahead. Hmmm, not looking good since the break has most of major teams represented. The peloton are being led by the grim, grey, grime-streaked faces of the Alessio team with no other team seemingly interested in chasing. The wise along the roadsides are in two minds. This move, which went at about the 50th kilometre could well stay away.
Kilometre 114 - 140 to go: Epen
If you look at the map, this is about as far east the race travels, taking in a loop which begins in Epen and the riders out towards the small villages of Vaals and Vijlen. We watch as both break and peloton scream down the hill into Epen itself, descending at well over 70 km/h before we head back up the hill to the shelter of a hotel and more coffee. The sun is starting to break through, the grey clouds parting to reveal bit of blue. It looks like the chasing peloton have a bit more life in them now. Maybe, just maybe the leading group will get caught.
Kilometre 142 - 112 to go: Eperheide (15th climb)
The wind is blowing harder, as the leading group comes to the top of the Eperheide, Tchmil as always present at the front, urging his fellow escapees on - but the fire really has gone out of their bellies and we can see the main peloton drop down the descent from Vijlen in the distance as the Tchmil group climbs past our eyrie. The view over the valley is quite spectacular, Spring looks like its springing and - at last - the sun really is coming through, the day warming up - this'll suit Scotty since, as he's so thin (and like many others), the rain and the cold always gets to him.
Kilometre 177 - 77 to go: Sibbe
Back across country, our journey a tad slower than before COs there are more and more spectators out now, we reach Sibbe where, on the next lap - if you can call it that - it'll be just twenty kilometres to go. Position ourselves on a roundabout, Van Petegem's mother and father arrive and join the crowds, the helicopters are in the distance - one can usually judge how close or how far apart pursuers and the hunted are by the distance the helicopters are apart in the sky - they seem closer now than before. The race director passes, his microphone blaring. The leading group have been pegged back to two minutes.
The wind is really strong now as we shelter by a bus and the break come through, Tchmil looks very strong still, as he leads them off the roundabout and up towards Valkenburg but one or two are obviously going to get dropped when they come to the Cauberg for the second time in three or four more kms. The main group hurtle past, they're really screaming now, one long thin waving line as rider after rider struggles to hold the wheel of the one in front. It is an awesome sight as we dash back to the car and head off to the Bemelerberg.
Kilometre 180 - 73 to go: Berg en Tiblit
An atrocious piece of map-reading ensues and I make a total balls-up by directing Sabine down entirely the wrong road where we find ourselves in a traffic jam on the edge of Berg en Tiblit as opposed to where we'd planned to be, the top of the Bemelerberg. No matter, just off the Cauberg, the break - or, more to the point what's left of them, are falling apart as they pass by led by - yeah, you've guessed Tchmil - two of his Lotto team-mates are dead meat (Blijlevens looks totally gone), one of the Mercatone Uno guys looks like he's gone through more suffering than he'd bargained for and the Rabobank rider who, earlier, had been hanging on for grim death, has also been distanced.
All are attended by the motor-cycle jackals - the photographers - eager to catch every last grimace of pain and suffering. The main group, meantime, tear past, led by the combined might of the Rabobank and USPS teams, and yes, Scotty's in there, looking comfortable - well, as comfy as the next - The real race is now underway.
Kilometre 196 - 58 to go: Gasthuisstraat, Bemelen (22nd climb)
Back the way we came and off on the correct road towards Bemelen - we've only ten minutes or so to get there and traffic is heavy on the tiny roads. Park where we can - there's no way we'll get to the top of the berg so we double park against an RV and walk up to the corner by the Gasthuis where there's a great view down to the top of the Bemelerberg. The wind is getting stronger as the helicopters clatter above in amongst the fleece-like white clouds scudding through the new blue of the sky, the break come into view and - they've splintered totally - three follow three but, oddly, the Mercatone guy has clawed his way back to the leaders, Scotty's in there behind the massed ranks of the Rabobank riders who lead what's left of the peloton. Maybe just thirty guys left - this is it.
Kilometre 220 - 34 to go: The Markt - the bar in Maastricht
No way will we be able to see another climb, much as we'd like to - for a start the riders have headed out into the countryside again away from Maastricht - and so sense prevails and we head to a bar which Fakta have taken over in the Markt. There's a big screen in there and as we arrive, we see the leading group are over the Loorberg again (24th climb) and heading towards Gulpen and onwards toward the Keutenberg. Scott's there at the back and Sabine's nerves are shredding by the minute, almost as much as the peloton are disintegrating. What is left of the peloton is in absolute tatters, containing no more than thirty or so guys - but, all the big-hitters are present with just Armstrong and an Italian away with Dekker chasing hard. This means that all important UCI points are in the bag for Scotty, but will it be a handful or a hatful?
Next on the agenda is the fearsome Keutenberg, a mere one-in-four beast of a climb, up between half-timbered houses and into the howling cross-wind at the top. The camera is constantly switching from the leaders to the chasing groups behind and, with the sun streaming onto the big screen (making identification difficult) its not easy to see exactly what is going on. Over the top and Scott's still there - Armstrong and Dekker have about a minute lead, the Italian with them got dropped half-way up, there's a small chasing group with Van Petegem, Bartoli and Museeuw and just behind are Tchmil, Peeters, Scotty and a few others.
Kilometre 254 - 0 to go: The finish in Maastricht
Bit of a quandary now - do we stay and watch or do we go to the finish? We walk and it seems to take ages to get from the main square to the finish area. Will we make it before the riders do? Nerves are really jangling now COs we're totally out of contact with the race and thus have no idea what's going on. Helicopters circling overhead - we catch bits on the PA, Dekker and Armstrong still have a minute on a small chasing group containing Museeuw with another group including Tchmil close behind them. No mention of Scott. Hell. We reach the finish - it's really warm now and we get as close to the line itself as we can, pressed up hard against the high barriers.
Squeezing our heads through, we see Dekker flash past, arms aloft shouting out a long y.. e...s... as he takes the win. Armstrong just behind and a handful of seconds later the red and black colours of Lotto's Serge Baguet - a close friend of Scott and Sabine's - crosses the line unexpectedly for third. The small group come in moments later and no Scott - damn, he didn't bridge the gap. There's a short wait which seems interminable for him to come in and, as he crosses the line just behind Tchmil, he's immediately pounced upon by TV cameramen and radio reporters.
One of the Fakta soigneurs sponges the grime from his face as he attempts to get his breath back and be interviewed at the same time. Not easy! Interviews over and he comes over to us and is - fuming - "expletive punctures at the expletive wrong times, first one at the foot of the first climb and chased like an expletive maniac, took me fifteen expletive k's to get back on - two of the guys waited for me and we were shot when we got back on. Felt like expletive all day. Then another on one of the descents (here he spits out the word descent) and I had another big chase up the expletive Loorberg, expletive cars in the way, got back, recovered a bit but, COs of that long chase back, didn't position myself very well on the Keutenberg, expletive group were going away, could see them as we turned a corner just in front of us, tried on my own but there was a bitch of a crosswind, then Tchmil and Peeters came up to me and I thought I had a better chance of bridging with them - we held them at about twenty metres - but."
And he shrugs his shoulders in the way that only Scotty does. We know he's made top-twenty - which, when one considers the crash that he suffered in the '98 Amstel that nearly cost him his life - is one hell of a result. But, it's not good enough for Scott. He felt he could make the podium today - and he's mad angry. He rides off to the doping control (still fuming) and we wander back to the car. Happy but not happy, knowing what could have been yet knowing what was (the puncture during one of the most important phases of the race) makes it a bit easier to accept.
The drive back - Scott's hungry (when is he never!) which means stops along the way for sandwiches and - a tad tetchy still - it'll take a while to come to terms with the misfortune that befell him. The description of the second puncture is still preceded by an expletive! In soccer parlance, it's like missing a good opportunity in front of goal. Thus, only natural that he's adopting the hair-shirt position.
Yet, come morning and after a good sleep for us all, Sabine's wiped out from all the driving, and Scott - well, he just raced 250 or so kilometres, there's an air of optimism in the air. Scott and Jeff Jones from www.cyclingnews.com go for a ride as much as for a leg loosener for Scott as anything. And, although it is unspoken - there are thoughts which pervade the atmosphere of what was then and what is now.
Of what happened in a previous Amstel: when Scott was left as if for dead on the roadside, knocked off his bike by a car driven by Cees Priem, suffering the most horrendous injuries.
And of what is now: how, despite nearly losing his life, he has clawed his way back to become not just the highest ranked Australian rider but - perhaps more impressive - on the edge of being ranked within the top one hundred riders in the world. Just eighteenth on the day? Well - we all have lousy days at the office when things don't go according to plan. A result in the wider scheme? Yes, most assuredly so.
That, I think, is the beyondness of things.