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ROULEUR ISSUE 19.6 - NOW AVAILABLE

  • VAMberg: The Most Rubbish Climb in Cycling

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    The centrepiece climb of the Ronde van Drenthe is a man-made pile of rubbish 40m high. But to the Dutch, the VAMberg is their mountain

    Words:
    Photographs: Balint Hamvas

    The VAMberg is the defining – and the only – climb of the Ronde van Drenthe, an anomalous mountain in a country of polders and dykes. It’s also total rubbish. Literally.

     

    Most of the iconic climbs in bicycle racing are iconic for a reason — they’re long, or steep, or tough, or picturesque, or defining in some way. Or they’ve been the scene of fearsome attacks, race-defining collapses, or titanic battles between legendary protagonists. They’re usually found in the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites, or as part of Monuments such at the Poggio or the Oude Kwaremont.

     

    Iconic may be an over-used term, particularly in bike racing, but there really is no better word when it comes to defining climbs such as the Stelvio or Alpe d’Huez. They have witnessed such drama and so many heroic exploits that iconic is the only word to do them justice.

     

    Under wraps: images from Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

     

    But there is one climb used in pro cycling in northern Europe that is both iconic and which strikes fear into the heart of the pro peloton — the VAMberg. Uniquely, it’s a climb that has actually got longer and steeper in recent years, not due to tectonic or volcanic activity, but because men with bulldozers made it that way. You see, the VAMberg is a man-made mountain of rubbish, a significant hill in the otherwise flat Drenthe region of northern Holland that is made up of 21,000,000 cubic metres of landfill rubbish. Not even the Tour of Dubai can boast a man-made mountain.

     

    Mountain may be overstating the case somewhat, even if it is the highest point in northern Holland. But the summit stands 40 metres above the surrounding countryside and 54 metres above sea level. From bottom to top it is only around 500m in length and ascends barely 38 vertical metres. However, it averages 9.7 per cent and has sections up to 22 per cent. To the Dutch, it’s a mountain.

     

    The VAMberg was started in the 1930s when the government decided to try and improve the quality of the land for agriculture (the soil in this area is very sandy and not good for growing). So they established a huge composting facility here, run by a company called VAM, and shipped organic household waste from western Holland to this part of Drenthe.

     

    “In the first 15 years,” explains Léon Dirrix, spokesman for Attero, the company that now owns VAM and runs the site, “there was hardly any residue which had to be landfilled. The waste was 90 per cent organic, and of course there was no plastic back in those days. After World War II, the quality of the organic waste declined as man-made packaging and consumer electronics became more common.

     

    “It was in the 1950s that the landfill was established, and over the decades the organic waste was gradually replaced by landfill – at least one million tonnes per year. By the mid-1990s, we [the Dutch] were separating organic waste at source and so the amount of landfill has now decreased dramatically.

     

    “The VAMberg was mainly built up between the 1960s and 2000. The landfill part of the site is 90 hectares in size and is still in use — the company has permission for another 4.5 million cubic metres of waste to be deposited here, and much of that will come from the UK.”

     

    In case you were imagining the riders riding over piles of broken washing machines and polystyrene packaging, cyclo-cross style, they don’t. When a part of the site is full, it’s covered over.

     

    There is very strict legislation that governs landfill sites, and they have to be covered over in very sophisticated ways. First they put down a layer of sand and clay over the landfill, then lay plastic sheeting (several millimetres thick) over it to keep the water out and the gasses in, then comes a draining layer, a metre of soil, and then turf. It costs €50 per square metre to cover and will need to be re-covered in 75 years time.

     

    Finally, they built a road over it and constructed a small visitor centre at the top. Attero also has an everlasting duty of care, which means they have to look after this mountain for all time.

    So how did the Ronde van Drenthe end up scaling the heights of the VAMberg? “We were contacted about 20 years ago by the organisers of the Ronde van Drenthe,” says Dirrix. “They wanted to upgrade their race to an international one and wanted a climb in the race. We agreed to allow them to use our ‘mountain’ and once a year the Ronde crosses the landfill, and also part of the recycling plant.”

     

    “You might expect it to smell a bit, but it doesn’t, actually,” explains Lizzie Armitstead, current women’s world road race champion and winner of the 2014 Ronde van Drenthe, who has raced across it numerous times. “It’s covered in green meadow, like being in Surrey.”

     

    Attero constantly monitors air emissions and ground water quality around the site, and a sophisticated system of venting means that they can extract bio-gas from the mountain that is then used to generate electricity and natural gas (a few years ago they were extracting up to 8000 cubic metres of bio-gas an hour).

     

    “A few years ago we had to re-cover part of the landfill in the area where the road goes, and we remodeled the hill to make it artificially steeper,” Dirrix says. “We also leveled off an area near the top to one side of the road so that we can have tents for hospitality during the race. It is harder to climb now than it was a few years ago, and at its steepest it is around 22 per cent for about 200m.”

     

    So the climb has actually got longer and steeper than it was ten years ago. “It’s a good little kicker,” agrees Armitstead, “and it’s fun, because there’s a tight little chicane into the bottom of it. It definitely makes a race.

    “I like it, but it’s always funny that we get scared about the VAMberg, because it’s not that hard. It’s early season, you’ve just gone to Qatar, nobody’s really done any climbing races, so in the early season it does feel like it’s this big climb. But in any other race in the summer, it would be like nothing, you wouldn’t even classify it.

     

    “The first time I rode it was in 2009. I was working for Rochelle Gilmore and she was our team sprinter, so I was trying to hang around with her. But I crashed right at the bottom of it, so I spent ages chasing, then I got back to a group with Rochelle – which was dropped. So I got on the front of that group and tried to chase back. It was just a horrendous day – I didn’t finish. But the VAMberg is hilarious. It is a climb, but to the Dutch, it’s a mountain. It’s just a rubbish tip. That’s the thing: a climb out of rubbish.”

     

     

    But does the VAMberg shape the Ronde van Drenthe every bit as much as the crosswinds? “It’s both,” says Armitstead. “So there are these cobbled sections that shape it, strung out crosswind section into the VAMberg, somebody attacks generally, a small group’s gone, crosswinds hit, groups come back if the front group’s not working together. It’s a really tactical race and it [the VAMberg] does play a part.”

     

    It certainly proved decisive in the 2014 race, when Anna van der Breggen stormed up the final ascent of the VAMberg (the race usually has multiple ascents), 16 kilometres from home. Armitstead went after her, caught her, and the two stayed away from the chasing peloton to the finish line where the Briton won.

     

    “The climb and descent are pretty straightforward,” says Armitstead. “There’s a hospitality centre at the top, there’s lots of people shouting – and drinking. It’s windy over the top. I like that race, it’s fun. It’s a bit too small to smell the alcohol on their collective breath though, it’s not Belgian style!”

     

    The VAMberg also had a bizarre part to play in the 2009 Vuelta a España. That year’s edition started in Holland and the organisers expected to include the VAMberg as a classified climb on the second day. But they wanted VAM to pay them €15,000 for the privilege. VAM decided they didn’t want to pay to have their mountain in the race, so the organisers were forced to look elsewhere for their first KOM climb. Not an easy task in the country that is mostly below sea-level.

     

    So the Vuelta organisers invented a mountain that didn’t actually exist. Witteveen is a tiny village in the Drenthe region, and the reason they chose it is because the late Relus ter Beek, a prominent local politician, is buried there. The organisers painted a line on a completely flat piece of road outside the cemetery and declared this to be the top of the KOM for that day. The Cota de Witteveen, one of the strangest climbs in Grand Tour history, was born.

     

    Tom Leezer, the Rabobank domestique who had made it into that day’s breakaway, was the first to cross the line and was subsequently awarded the red mountains jersey. He held on to it for several days until a real climb made an appearance.

    So what’s the future for the VAMberg? Will it continue to get higher and longer? “No,” says Dirrix. “We will continue to add landfill to other parts of the site, but not to the top of the VAMberg. That part is finished. But we don’t know what the future will bring. It might get smaller. There may come a time when these landfill sites may become useful resources in the future. Processes may be invented that allow us to use this landfill to generate energy or to be repurposed. They are also full of valuable things — jewellery, money, and so on. But it would cost too much to try and find them.”

     

    And that’s a sobering thought. While the VAMberg is just a huge pile of rubbish, the object of amusement, curiosity and fear to the riders that race over the top of it, it is also a graveyard of once-cherished things.

     

    Here lie the cutting-edge household appliances of the 1950s and 1960s, once the proud possessions of families looking to a brighter, more high-tech future. Here lie necklaces, bracelets and rings, misplaced decades ago, mourned by those who have lost something of sentimental and monetary value.

     

    Maybe, somewhere underneath 21 million cubic metres of rubbish, is a rare Campagnolo Nuovo Record groupset, or a bike once raced by Wim van Est.

     

    One thing is certain. Here lie the hopes of many a racer, distanced and dropped by a stinging attack on the final ascent of the VAMberg, cycling’s most rubbish climb.

     

    Published in issue 51. Join Rouleur