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Hey, Baby, It's the Fourth of July

Posted by MDugard on Jul 4, 2006 4:07:03 PM

Matthias Kessler won today's stage with a last-ditch kamikaze attack. His teammate, Michael Rogers, finished second, just in front of Belgium's Tom Boonen. The result pushed Rogers up to second in the overall rankings and Boonen into first. He becomes the fourth man to wear the maillot jaune in this Tour.The most overlooked American, Fast Freddie Rodriguez, was involved in a crash with Erik Dekker on the approach to today's third climb. Preliminary reports show that both men are out of the Tour with broken collarbones.Fast Freddie is Robbie McEwen's lead-out man. For those unfamiliar, a lead-out man's job is to pace his sprinter into position for the final dash to the line. This often involves threading the needle through tight packs of jockeying racers. Think of the lead-out man as that savvy friend (we all have one) who you follow through a crowded mall or bar, because they know how to find an opening in the crowd and squeeze through before it closes. It's a gift, and McEwen will suffer for the loss.Spain's Alejandro Valverde also crashed and broke his collarbone. That's one more favorite out of the race.Today's route took the riders from Esch-sur-Alzette due north to Valkenbourg, site of this year's cycling world championships. It turned out to be a splendid place to get lost. The land was forested in Luxembourg, covered with rolling green hills and thick forests of old-growth pine. There is an almost Germanic efficiency to Luxembourg, as if the country is so small that they want to get every last detail because they have no excuse not to. This efficiency did not, though, extend to traffic signs. For some reasons I was part of a caravan of cars that were pointed toward a new, as yet unfinished, highway. SO new that the concrete was wet. I should point out here that highway workers in Luxembourg wear running shorts, running shoes, and nothing else in the summer. To have these sun-bronzed men, with their ample beer bellies, poke their head into your car window and tell you how incredibly stupid you are is a real treat. But not a Dutch treat. That would be another country entirely.Got out of that jam. Got lost again. By now I was tired of being lost, and all those pine trees didn't look so majestic anymore. Stopped to clear my head in Bastogne, the town made famous during the Battle of the Bulge when the American commander refused a German surrender demand with the famous reply of "nuts." I made my way into the town center. A Sherman Tank from that battle is on display next to the cafes. Thought that was pretty cool.Back on the road. Got lost again when I missed the sign for Maastricht. Came up with the bright idea that I would get off the autoroute and find the actual course. So I find the course, pull up to the barricade and a policeman pushes it aside to let me through the crowds and onto the actual Tour de France course. What he didn't tell me was that the publicity caravan was already in the process of passing through. From now on, when I think of the N648 road between Vervier and Valkenburg, I will think of Dr. Oetker's Pretzels, because I spent a good hour trapped behind a flatbed truck decorated to look like a giant pretzel.It is what it is, right? I was lost, then I was stuck behind a giant pretzel, and by now it was almost 3 pm.I just kind of went with it. The crowds along the roads grew with every passing mile. It was a scene much more common to the weekend mountain stages than to a midweek race through Luxembourg and Belgium. The land was no longer forested, but mile upon mile of golden pasture. The air smelled of manure and dry grass. Children played along the roadside, waving at every passing caravan vehicle. Entire families picknicked in the grass, despite the heat. Belgian flags flew from tree branches, cranes, store fronts. Three girls say in the bucket of a backhoe, their feet dangling twenty feet off the ground. And in every town, behind the barricades erected to prevent crashes, the people partied. It was a most festive site, and not at all jaded -- those people were just out there to celebrate the day.That celebration took on new heights for the last climb into Valkenburg. The fans there had been drinking for quite a while (the families were back in the villages; this crowd would have been just as at home at a soccer game or in a bar fight). Barricades covered the last five kilometers of the course, which was good, because these guys would have pressed right up to the middle of the street and made it hard for the riders to pass. The turns were tight and the roads narrow. Beer was thrown at every car (I was so taken with the scene that I was doused by warm beer. Only then did I remember to roll up my window). All of this begged the obvious question: Don't these people have jobs?Tom Boonen being from Belgium, the locals went into patriotic spasms when he moved into the yellow jersey. His name had been painted on the roadside throughout the course, and big banners pronounced his glories. Good for him.I finally got to the finish a couple hours ahead of the peloton. My hand must have accidentally flicked some sort of switch on the dashboard as I parked, because this console rose up out of the dashboard. On the face of the console was a map showing my precise location. It turns out my rental car has a GPS navigational system.Not having eaten since breakfast, and my blood sugar just about rock bottom, I was very relieved when the press buffet was a huge spread of cheeses, pate, salads, and something spicy that looked like beef stroganoff. I had seconds.Tomorrow the race travels 128.34 miles from Huy to Saint-Quentin. Huy is the finish of the annual Fleche-Wallon cycling classic, while Saint-Quentin is an historical city with a sense of humor. The city fathers annually create an artificial ocean beach each summer and a Christmas shopping village each winter. The route is mostly flat. Rain is forecast, with a hint of thundershowers.As Dave Alvin sang, Hey Baby, it's the Fourth of July. God Bless America.Talk to you tomorrow.

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