Part 1 - The Route
"It's the Netherlands, how hard can it be?"
This was said to me by another rider the day before the 2019 edition of the Race Around the Netherlands. I wonder how that rider felt about it a day or so later as we all shivered our way through Friesland, slogging into a never ending headwind.
If you ask people what they think of when you say The Netherlands, you'll get the usual tourist cliches such as Tulips, and Cloggs, and Windmills. Which, to be fair, the Dutch don't go to any efforts to hide from. But the reality is there is so much more to this wonderful country, and The Race Around The Netherlands (RatN) is a perfect way to explore all corners (literally) of this beautiful country. If you're just here to find out about the rider's skip ahead to part 2.
The race itself starts at Cafe de Proloog, in the town of Amerongen. Amerongen is nestled on the edge of a ridge of hills, yes you read that right, hills, in the Netherlands, called the Utrechtse Heuvelrug. Now these aren't big hills, and they are a long way from mountains, but they are not flat, trust me, we know flat here. The first couple of kilometers of the race take us up the Amerongseberg, berg is Dutch for mountain, a term used here that really does belie delusions of adequacy, but the 50m total ascent is enough to break up the field a bit.
The route heads north through the province of Utrecht heading for Flevopolder. Flevopolder was drained in the 50s and 60s, making it some of the youngest land in the Netherlands. The route skirts the southern side along the Veluwemeer. When the race normally runs in May this section can be an interesting goose and gosling slalom, with the potential to be chased by a hissing parent if you have the audacity to ride between them and their gosling.
Eventually we cross back over to the mainland, into the province of Gelderland. We're heading south now and the next significiant location is the Hoge Veluwe national park. This is also the first of 3 optional diversions the riders can take. The Hoge Veluwe is a rather pretty national park, it costs about €10 to get in, and the route snakes through the woods and heathlands of the park. There is some debate as to which route is quicker, and I think it's got to be the route around the outside, it is longer, but it's basically level, and it's pretty straight on good quality tarmac. The route through the park is much more convoluted, but more importantly you have to steer round all the tourists. This slows things down quite a lot. The surface isn't as smooth either.
After the Hoge Veluwe we continue through the rest of the Veluwe with the Posbank, this is the first real climb of the race, with ramps upto 14%, and some nice hairpins in the middle. Keep an eye out for the local wildlife tho, I almost hit a wild boar on one of the descents in the middle here.
Veluwe over, we're back into the flat landscape, tho it's not the reclaimed polder that most people think of with the Netherlands. At about the 200km mark the route turns north and follows the German border. We can expect a lot of the mid field and below to make their first night in the area around Enschede, it lies at 260km, and there's quite a few hotels with 24hr checkin here.
Those at the pointy end will of course continue north. Before turning west towards Holten and the Holtenberg, again not a massive climb, but it takes us through another national park. With woods and heathland, it's a beautiful area, and for those doing it at night, the dip in the middle is shielded from all the light polution in the area giving a great view of the sky (if it's clear).
Soon the route turns north east through Drenthe, past the village of Engeland, heading for the star fort at Bourtange. The fort is closed at night, and there is a diversion for riders who pass through here late. The route turns away from the border heading for the city of Groningen, in the province of Groningen. This is the 500km mark and we can expect those at the pointy end to ride through to here at least before any major stops. After Groningen the city, we head into Polder country, aiming for the Northern most part of the Dutch mainland, and the direction marker that will instill dread in anyone who rode in 2019. "Turn left at the google datacentre".
Once you turn left, along the Northern cost of the mainland, you're pretty much on your own. There is no shelter, there is no protection, it's a vast open wind swept land. You can see for over 180° of sky. If you have a headwind now, which is likely, it is going to be soul destroying. From the left turn until Harlingen nearly 200km later, the route only goes through 3 major settlements where you can buy food easily, if you're riding through at night and have not stocked up before hand, you're going to struggle. Even in day light this is rural Groningen and rural Friesland, things aren't open late. The only options are Pieterburen, Zaltkamp, and Holwerd. The latter has a coop just off course, and that's pretty much it. It is hard to convey just how remote and desolate it is up here. In 2019, this was the beginning of 600+km of strong headwinds. This year there is a small route change just before Lauwersoog, this is due to construction work on the dijk there. Where the route rejoins the dijk, we get The Sheep. The dijk is all that is keeping this area of the Netherlands from being reclaimed by the sea, but it's also a big area of grass, ideal for the local farmers to graze their sheep. As if the soul crushing headwind in the vast open landscape wasn't enough, now we have to stop every few hundred meters, open a gate, ride across a cattle grid (Wildrooster in Dutch), close the gate, and move on. Some sheep will fall asleep against the gates, the road surface is covered in sheep poo, in many places it's rough block paving. In 2019 one rider scratched after hitting a sheep. Another rider had a flat while riding through this area, they fixed it, but made the crucial mistake of not washing their hands after handling their tires. They scratched after getting very ill. Navigating round the sheep is an interesting side challenge here. They are a bit like tourists, but with more sense of direction. This section puts a considerable disadvantage on riders using a recumbent. Getting them through the gates is going to be a lot of faff! To any rider who has made it this far in a previous edition of the race, simply saying "the sheep" is enough to trigger thoughts of dread and maybe a subconscious twitch.
The plus side of the remoteness of this area is that on a clear night, the view can be spectacular. With the Milkyway visible with the naked eye. The downside is that with a wind in any direction but due east, it really can be hell.
And if slogging into a headwind on this section isn't enough, the route teases you at Harlingen when you turn left at the wind turbine factory...
From Harlingen the route originally crossed the Afsluitdijk at Zurich. This is a 32km long structure that turned the Zuiderzee into the IJsselmeer. The dijk is currently the site of construction work and is closed to cyclists. In 2019 riders were allowed to take a bus across it, at the cost of a 24 hour penalty, that is not an option this year. Giving riders a full circumnavigation of the IJsselmeer. If riders are lucky they will get a tail wind for some of this. In 2019 the section from Lemmer to Urk was the only tail wind I had in over 600km. At the end of Flevopolder we cross into Noord Holland and skirt the edge of Amsterdam. This marks the half way point of the route, and also The Wild Bunch bike shop. The shop extends its opening hours for the duration of the race, so that riders can stop off for repairs, a nap, or just a coffee. There can be quite a party atmosphere at times here.
The route continues up the west coast of the IJsselmeer, to the other end of the Afsluitdijk to rejoin the original route. At Den Helder things turn south again and head down the west coast of the Netherlands. Here we get another landscape again. The Dunes. There is a diversion for the northern part of the dunes during darkness, this is the 3rd optional route section (in blue on the tracker). A ferry over the Noordzeekanaal then we head for Noord Holland's most notorius climb. The Kopje van Bloemendaal. It's the closest hill to Amsterdam so very popular for local riders who want to try the novel experience of cycling up. After Bloemendaal we hit the Tulip fields, when the race runs in May this area is a sea of colour of the tail end of the Tulip season. With the later start this year there is colour to be seen, but it's not the tulips that we all think of. The route continues through the dunes all the way past the town of Monster (no that is not a typo...). Riders doing this section at night need to keep an eye out for deer, as well as rabbits with a death wish. Hang a left at Hoek Van Holland, and we're heading for Rotterdam.
Rotterdam means two things, lots of traffic lights, and cycling across the Erasmus bridge. Named after Desiderius Erasmus (he for whom the European Erasmus program is also named), the bridge connects the north of the city to the south, This section of the route is the only part that has also been part of a Tour De France stage.
Next up the route heads into Zeeland. The route follows the delta works, one of the engineering wonders of the world. Built after the great flood of 1953, the scale of these epic structures can only really be appreciated by cycling across them. They also play host to the Dutch National Headwind Championships, cos what could be more Dutch than cycling intentionally into a strong head wind on your granny's bike? For those relying on hotels for accommodation, this area can be problematic, there's not a lot of hotels with 24hr check in available, some of the hotels advertising checkin closing as early as 1800. There are some bivvi opportunities available if you know where to look, but we're into the exposed open sea walls again.
Zeeland over, we're into Noord Brabant. The route would normally have a brief excursion into Belgium and back and into Belgium again and back again and Belgium and back again at the curious cartographic entity that is Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau. This is a collection of various Belgian exclaves within the Netherlands. Unfortunately Baarle-Hertog is in the province of Antwerp, meaning riders would need to isolate for 14 days after going through there, so for 2020 we skip this bit of Belgium in the Netherlands.
As riders cross Noord Brabant, a growing sense of doom starts to build, as we all know what is looming round the next corner. Limburg is looming.
The Ibis Budget hotel at Stein is a popular choice for riders wanting a rest before they tackle the climbs of Limburg. The route snakes around a lot here taking in a greatest hits of Limburg climbs. Anyone who has watched the Amstel Gold race will be familiar with them, Cauberg, Keutenberg, Gulperberg, Camerig. One after another. With over 1600km in your legs, it's a brutal sting. The Keutenberg tops out at a max gradient of 22%. These hills aren't big, but they are steep. Short, sharp, punchy, and with all that distance already in your legs they hurt.
A new addition to the route this year is at the end of the Camerig, the route descends into Belgium, to then climb up again to the highest European point of The Netherlands at the three land point where Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands meet. Some call this the highest point of the Netherlands, but that actually is on the island of Saba in the Caribbean, but it's the highest bit in Europe, and the highest point of the course. This is it, the home straight now!
After Vaalserberg, the route heads generally north, deviating to follow the border and take in a couple of small climbs. Eventually we hit the river valley and follow the Maas north to Nijmegen, all that's left between the riders and the finish is 60km, a small stream called the Rhine, or rather two branches of the Rhine; the Waal, and the Nederrijn. The latter is crossed via a bridge at Rhenen. Rhenen is the site of what feels like the Netherland's slowest traffic light. Get caught by the red to turn left here, and it feels like forever before it goes green, but once it does, we've just the last few kilometers of segregated riding along the N225 to get back to Amerongen. And that's it, into the square in front of Cafe de Proloog to finish. 1907km is the official race distance this year. Taking in all 12 provinces of the Netherlands. Experiencing the very best that Dutch cycling has to offer. On the face of it it seems so simple, the alure of that flat riding. But it's a double edged sword. On the flat you can't stop pedalling, esp if there is any hint of a head wind. But then, it's the Netherlands. How hard can it be?
Part 2 - The Riders
Nice tho the love letter to Dutch cycling is, what you really want to know about is who's riding, and who's likely to win.
Due to various travel restrictions, as well as the moved date, over 70 riders have dropped out leaving us with just 95 expected in Amerongen. The 95 is made up of 6 women, 5 pairs, and 79 men. Thirteen nationalities are represented with Dutch, German, Belgium, British, Danish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian, Polish, American, Austrian, and Brazilian riders due to race.
Of the women, only Jasmijn Muller (cap 2) has started RatN before. She rode last year putting in an impressive performance before her surprise scratch near Noordwijk. Jasmijn has unfinished business with this race and we're expecting a strong performance from her for 2020.
Marianne Thissen-Smits (cap 49) is a TCR veteren having finished TCRno7 in 2019. This should put her in good steed for RatN.
Fin Suvi Tohola (cap 5) is the only non-Dutch woman riding this year, she has completed the Round Denmark Bike Race in 2019 as a pair, this will be her first solo race.
Francien Peterse (cap 10), could give Jasmijn a run for her money, I've met her a number of times at various Dutch Audax events, she is often one of the first home. This is her first ultra race, but if her audaxing performance is anything to go on, we can expect good things.
Florine Koning (cap 58) is a veteren of the North Cape 4000, having riden it in 2019, unfortunately she had to scratch in Denmark, but the experience should serve her well for RatN.
Our final woman rider is Eline van Straalen (cap 3). This is her first ultra race. She is relatively new to long distance cycling, but she's done some long tours, as well as plenty of Dutch Audaxes. She could well be an unexpected spoiler.
What about the men? Well both the fastest (Bas Vlaskamp) and second fastest(Daan Marsmans) riders from 2019 are back for another go. Bas (cap 1) wants to defend his title, while Daan (cap 31), feels he can do better than last year. Daan looked like the faster rider, but he had to sleep with 200km to go, which let Bas slip past him. Bas has commented that he thinks he spent too much time not moving last year and hopes he can break the 4 day barrier.
Austrian pair Christian Leitner (cap 22) and Werner Finger (cap 19) have declared that they want to finish in under 4 days too, which could give the solo riders a run for their money. It would be unusual for a pair to beat the solo riders. They also have the advantage that Werner Finger is cap 19, and historically cap 19 has had an interestering race with RatN.
Elsewhere in the pack, the eldest rider is Ruerd Kuipers (cap 126). He is the father of last year's rider Aukje (cap 63), who unfortunately scratched in Zeeland. At 67, Ruerd is older than the parts of the course through Flevopolder. Rieks van Lubek (cap 125), is also a father of a 2019 rider, Wendy (cap 83) who scratched in Friesland.
In total there are 8 veterans returning for another go at the race. Ralph Cullen (cap 68) and two times finisher Jamie Robison (cap 18) are both returning for their 3rd go at the race.
Somewhat unusually for ultraraces, RatN permits unfaired recumbents. This year at least one rider is planning to ride on a recumbent trike, we'll see at the bike check what other bikes people are planning to ride, the recumbent could have a good aero advantage, but it may lose that to the sheep and the gates in Friesland. We'll have to see, no recumbent rider has yet finished the race.
If last year's race is anything to go by, the only thing we can be certain of is that it will be an interesting race. The course is deceptively simple, and can easily take people by surprise. A Trans Am Bike Race winner, as well as 24hr TT world champions all got caught by surprise in 2019. While the August start means the weather may be a bit warmer, the weather is likely to be the big deciding factor. Right now the forecast suggests it's going to be wet. The wind for the first few days looks quite benign, but it could well make things especially hard for riders at the tail end of the pack.
If you would like to get in touch email us at firstname.lastname@example.org