Recalling the lead-up to the 2006 Amstel Gold Race, Anthony Tan takes a step back in time, and provides a window into the challenging life of a cycling hack.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

I'd been waiting years for this moment: to have a bike race go past my
front door.

Having spent the previous year based in Vevey, a
quaint French-speaking town on the pristine shores of Switzerland's Lake
Geneva (and Charlie Chaplin's final resting place), my intention for
the 2006 cycling season was to move to a tiny town in the north of Italy
where life would be a little cheaper.

As a foreign
correspondent, freelancer or not, it's all about frugality. Overspend
your budget and chances are you won't get the call-up to cover next
week's classic or stage race – never mind next year.

Over the
years, I had travelled through much of central and northern Italy, but
this tiny town of Laveno-Mombello was news to me. I only discovered it
after acquainting myself with a member of HomeExchange.com, a Web site
established to put like-minded travellers in contact with each other.


Simply put, exchanges – once agreed upon by both parties – work off a
barter-style system: you stay at someone's place, they stay at yours,
with no financial transaction involved.

Perfect.

Working
off a principle of trust posed no barrier. Years of interviewing anyone
who's anyone and anyone who's no-one comes in handy: before long, you
develop an innate sense of good versus bad, and importantly, whether
someone is telling the truth.

Richard Hainebach, the South
African who I was speaking to, was definitely of the former ilk (and is
someone I continue to keep in touch with to this day).

So the
problem was not so much the people, it was the place, and sans
voiture
(without a car), travelling to the destinations required of
me. Nestled on the banks of Lake Maggiore in the country's northwest,
Laveno's population numbers less than 10,000 inhabitants.

For a
native Sydneysider, that's quite a shock.

Vevey, small in itself
– too small, I found – was three times the size and had regular bus and
train services to the much larger neighbouring city of Lausanne, the
International Olympic Committee headquarters just 14 kilometres away.
From there, I could go almost anywhere.

Laveno, I'd been told,
had only a patchy train service to Milan that took just under an hour
and a half. Richard said it was better to take a car if I wanted to go
anywhere.

Problem was, I didn't have one.

That's when
Richard suggested an alternative: "How about Holland?" Ya, ik sprek
klein bitje Nederlands...


In the diminutive town of Banholt –
we're now talking hundreds, not thousands – the Hainebach family once
lived in a old (almost three hundred years), Provençal-style farmhouse
where Richard and his Italian wife Paola raised their three daughters,
Esther, Miriam and Simonetta.

Despite having a terrifyingly tiny
list of inhabitants, it was ideally located on the Belgian-Dutch-German
border, and was just a 45-minute bus ride into the far more
cosmopolitan city of Maastricht, not too far from where I lived when I
was a bike racer myself.

Richard told me he only moved out
because Paola's mother needed constant care in her old age, and Miriam
and Simonetta were now living in Stockholm and Den Haag (The Hague)
respectively. That left just Esther and her boyfriend in this grand old
place that "begged to be lived in", encouraged Richard.

Also,
instead of an exchange, he proposed I pay a nominal amount for rent and
keep the place tidy, to save them organising cleaners and gardeners from
afar.

Oh yes, there was one other thing, inconsequential to
most but rather significant to me: it was possible to walk out onto the
Amstel Gold parcours from the house.

The deal was done. As a
mark of respect, I was determined to be the most scrupulous houseguest
(and part-time gardener) they ever had.

That on any afternoon, I
could throw a leg over my titanium Bianchi and ride up Le Cauberg,
the one-in-seven finishing pinch that often decides the winner of each
year's Amstel Gold Race after some 250 kilometres, was a heavenly
proposition that I never once took for granted but embraced whenever I
could.

I also rode much of the circuitous, intertwining parcours
that comprise 'The Amstel' and regularly tested myself on the 30-odd
climbs (not all at once, mind you) the locals call 'bergjes'
throughout the south Limburg region.

That each of the big
Classics before it – Sanremo, Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Roubaix – were
stunning to witness in their own right did not detract from my
enthusiasm. It only enhanced it.

Woken by the susurrations of
wind through the apple trees, the pitter-patter of rain knocking on my
bedroom window, and the constant though irregular 'moo' of the cows in
the paddock, the morning of April 16, 2006 began like any other.


At the start in Maastricht's cobbled Grote Markt, it was bucketing
rain. In spring of northern Europe, a normal start to the day.


For lovers of cycling, the weather was perfect.

Riders huddled
in their team cars and buses for as long as they could, rummaging
anxiously through their wet-weather reserves. Meanwhile, my Belgian
colleague and I grabbed as many pre-race interviews and soggy snaps as
we could before kick-off, and when the gun fired and the peloton took
off, we scooted into a McDonalds to use their WiFi connection, filing
our grabs and downing some typically ordinary coffee.

No time
for an Amstel bier just yet. Still raining cats and dogs, we
bolted to our car and drove to the finish in Valkenburg.

Like
many of the 250 kilometre-plus Classics, the Amstel Gold is a race of
attrition, and with the finish no more than a half-hour's drive away,
time was on our side. Inside the press room, there was an aura of
nervous energy and excitement as the rain pelted down on the canvas
canopy, dissipating as the day wore on.

Over the course of 253
kilometres, riders would tackle the Cauberg once, twice, thrice,
finishing at the top after its third ascension. 40 clicks out, the
indefatigable Stefen Wesemann had launched a three-up move that quickly
turned into a one-man show when he dropped his companions Igor Astarloa
and Leonardo Bertagnolli.

The German was clearly on a remarkable
day, a 10-man chase group comprising the world's finest unable to bring
him back till the closing kilometres, just before Paolo Bettini chose
his moment.

It was unsurprising to see 'Il Grillo's' move
heavily marked by the unwieldy chase group; Fränk Schleck's should have
been too, but the lanky Luxembourger's attack was so fierce, so
irrepressible, that his companions could only watch and wonder what
might have been. Emerging from the mist with fists clenched, the yell of
victory and more than six hours in the saddle said it all.


Schleck would go on to win the coveted L'Alpe d'Huez stage of that
year's Tour de France, stamping his authority as one of cycling's big
talents.

Little did the world know that his younger brother
Andy, five years his junior, would become an even larger talent just one
year later, finishing second to Danilo Di Luca in the 2007 Giro
d'Italia, and with greater things expected.

Editor's note: The
2010 Amstel Gold Race will be held this Sunday, April 18 in the
Netherlands. It covers a distance of 257.3 kilometres, containing 31
climbs including three ascensions of the final climb to the finish, the
Cauberg.