The sky looked leaden. “At least we’ve made it through the Channel Tunnel chaos” we joked as the windscreen wipers swished along the 500km journey through Belgium on our way up to 51st Assen Jeugdtour (Youth Tour) in Northern Holland.
Memories of our first visit to Assen, the previous year, came flooding back. Long summer nights on the campsite; the hotel games arcade and expansive pool-complex; Chocomel on tap and endless portions of chips with mayonnaise or curry sauce “Oh yuk Dad“.
But for all these memories it was the anticipation of the cycling that had our pulses racing. And it is hard to overstate just how extraordinary the Assen cycling is. 6 days of racing alongside passionate youth riders from all across Europe and beyond. Impeccable event organisation and logistics that reflect over half a century of expertise and experience.
Put this into a country and culture that celebrates every form of cycling and you find yourself in a parallel universe where closed roads and use of civic infrastructure for youth cycle racing is both a norm and a source of local pride.
The weather on arrival was relatively kind. The heavy rains held back whilst we set up camp. Along with other early arrivals, we did our best to bagsy our now customary zone of the campsite and HillingdonStraat was reborn offering prime camping real estate to the Bisson, Still, Coleman, Moreve, George, Brooks, Old, Smithson, Kent, Evans and Loveless parties.
The run of good luck continued as we woke up to sunshine for the Sunday Sportive. A 50km social ride through archetypal Dutch countryside, culminating in a cosy stop for waffles with hot cherry compote.
Our luck, however, was set to change. Unlike 2014, where we enjoyed a week of unbroken sunshine, we were set on a collision course with the eye of Northern Europe’s stormiest week. Within hours of the waffles in the sun, we were experiencing torrential rain, uprooted tents, mangled gazebos and collapsed awnings. Countless tales will be told of groups huddled in town-centre pizzerias, slow realising that the rain wasn’t going to abate to allow a dry passage back to the campsite. This wasn’t in the script!
Conditions aside, we were never going to let the weather spoil the fun. And in the best traditions of cycling, our riders and supporting families dug deep and prepared to race wet.
The format of the Assen Jeugdtour is a 6 day racing event with a race, varied in length, for each age category every day. There are four competitions running across the week including the overall General Classification GC – Yellow Jersey; Top Girl in GC – Pink Jersey; Best Sprinter – Green Jersey and Special Points (Time Trials & Hill Climbs) – White Jersey. In addition to the cumulative prizes, each stage provided opportunity for top 3 stage win podium honours.
The opening Prologue stage was a short time trial, with the primary aim of establishing a GC baseline and determining the jersey wearers for the following day. The course was a 1.5km tiled forest path – a course made all the more sporting by the endless rain.
Getting and holding a Jersey comes with benefits and challenges. Wearers are marked riders – targets to challenge and beat, however, a Jersey also confers a privilege of front row grinding in the criterium and road races.
Our younger Slipstreamers got off to a great start with stage podiums and Jerseys for Bobby O’Brien & Jed Smithson and Pink Jersey placing for Millie.
A day later, Stage 1, was a closed road criterium held in a local suburb of Assen. A great course in the dry, but testing in the wet with metal covers and tight bends a-plenty. The younger categories got away with a dryish race at the start of the day, but the older riders couldn’t avoid the return of the rainstorms during their races, some quite torrential
Stage 2 was the classic road race. A distance of between 7 and 80 km (depending on age group) of open road racing made possible by local police support, motorcycle outriders and rolling road-blocks. High winds and intermittent storms made this feel more like an early spring classic than a high summer race and there were accidents and spills as well as podiums, jerseys and thrills.
Stage 3 was mostly dry and was an individual time trial into a gutsy headwind. Raised ramps and reverse GC ordered electronic countdowns added to the drama as riders tested themselves against the clock.
Stage 4 introduced the cobbles. a 100m stretch of Dutch lumps designed to shake, rattle and roll the sturdiest of riders. Thankfully the weather had turned good by now and the day was accident free for our riders.
And the final stage was another criterium, this time in and around our campside passing right through the HillingdonStraat base-camp.
Much fun was had decorating the tarmac with good luck messages for our riders and for a while, chalk became the hottest commodity in town
And suddenly, 6 days of racing were over. One final blast of pomp was enjoyed at the closing ceremony where honours, flowers, trophies and winners jerseys were presented and then in a moment it was all over. The European campers soon packed up and went home leaving behind a ghostly camp-site for those remaining Brits who were there for one final night before departing for home.
You will have seen the results and podium pics on our twitter feed and suffice to say, our Hillingdon riders punched well above their weight bringing home a clutch of jersey’s trophies and medals.
However, regardless of position, each and every one of our club’s riders gave 100% of their best in Assen and each has their own story and journey to tell. Each and every race gave our riders something new to learn and we were proud to watch them grown as riders and competitors and do themselves and the club proud. The experience, thrills and joy of this week will stay with them for a lifetime.
Beyond the cycling, Assen provided the children a week of freedom to play, enjoy each other’s company and deepen what are already some of their strongest friendships. Be it hours in the pool, sleepovers in each other’s camper vans or football around the campsite – the warmth of the Slipstreamers community shone through even the darkest and rainiest clouds.
Roll on February 1st 2016 when sign-on for the 52nd Jeugdtour opens.