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Easy to please, Dutch cycling fans. While the French are caught up in a 20-year wait for a local Tour winner, and the Americans have an ongoing superiority complex, all the Dutch need to keep them happy is a hill and industrial quantities of beer.
The key to watching the Tour in the hills is to get there early. Unfortunately for us, about 10,000 Dutch cycling fans had followed this advice well in advance of our arrival. While the Cycling Weekly Broom Wagon was getting wedged into a car park in a field several miles from the Cauberg, the locals were getting the beers in. But just when we thought we?d be watching the race at the back of a crowd that was 10 deep in places, luck smiled on us. Like the red sea parting, a path opened up through the orange sea of Dutch fans straight to a table in a bar right in front of a television showing the cycling. Our table.
While race reporter Lionel put his feet up and stayed to keep an eye on developments in the race, I set off undercover up the Cauberg.
The temperatures were well into the 30s, and it soon became apparent that I was going to have a hard time seeing anything meaningful happening on the road ? the bars spilled onto the pavements, with sunburned and singing fans throwing water at the publicity caravan, at each other, and at me. The crowd had reached a critical mass where nobody could really move easily, but people could squeeze past each other under pressure like sheep in a pen.
Every available vantage point was taken. The corporate seats were the first line of people, on the barriers with an uninterrupted sight-line to the road, while the box seats were up on the walls. Everybody else was just doing their best. People were up trees, in bushes, sitting atop portaloos and hanging on to lampposts. But nobody had considered the obscure and precarious half square metre, 10 feet up on a gate pillar, upon which I put myself for the best view of the hill, bar none. From my vantage point just beyond the apex of the right-hand turn, I could see up and down the Cauberg.
Below me there was a sea of people. Above me the road twisted left again up towards the finish. A group of Germans tried to strike up a patriotic song, but like City supporters at a United match, they were easily drowned out by the Dutch. As the helicopter following the front of the race came into view, the race commentary from the tannoys rose in intensity and volume, with French and Dutch commentators vying to outdo each other. All the time, the crowd cheered the motorcycle police and the race vehicles coming through in advance of the riders.
The arrival of the race was signalled by quiet descending on the crowd, before a scarcely discernible buzz came in a crescendo up the hill. Then came successive waves of cheers, rolling up the hill just ahead of the riders, out of reach like the rabbit at a greyhound track, but pulling them up with invisible force. Around the corner came Michael Boogerd, Tom Boonen on his wheel, Matthias Kessler moving up.
Halfway up the Cauberg on the left there is a graveyard and the cheering as the riders went past was loud enough to wake the dead. The riders strained upwards, and as they came past me, I had a snapshot of Michael Boogerd frozen in time. Desperate to win the race wearing the Dutch champion?s jersey in front of his home crowd, grimacing in agony, but unable to impose himself, with younger rivals waiting on his shoulder to pounce. This stage had come three years too late for him. As the race favourites went forward, there was Thor Hushovd, the yellow jersey, going backwards through the bunch, unable to hold the pace at the front.
The first group had come and gone in a moment, but the cheers, if anything, grew louder as the back markers started passing through. Some were overgeared and struggling, others were easing themselves up, bemused by the support. Sandy Casar ground past, yelling at his directeur sportif Marc Madiot to go on without him, while his Française des Jeux team mate Carlos Da Cruz was a minute further back, enjoying the attention as usual. Unai Etxebarria, who?d spent much of the day off the front, came past in a horrible slow-motion grind.
It was 20 minutes before Filippo Pozzato and Magnus Backstedt, accompanied by the broom wagon, meandered past, and suddenly the road was open again. A river of people swept down the hill back into Valkenburg, where music, drunkenness and the best atmosphere on the Tour de France waited for them.
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