It takes a village

The riders come screaming around the final corner - wheels whirring and gears clicking down in a frenzy of motion.

As they cross the line, race commissaires ring a bell, announcing the final lap around the circuit. It takes less than six minutes for the cyclists to complete the 4.6km loop and they jostle for position on the final sprint.

The cobblestones threaten to throw them off kilter, but the men are all seasoned professionals and both their nerves (and bikes) are rock-steady.

As with most sprints, it is the strongest that wins. The victor crosses the line and pumps his fists as the crowd roars its approval.

That scene could well have been at the Champs Elysees in Paris, on the final stage of the Tour de France.

But, if you thought so, you are mistaken.

Instead, welcome to Chaam (population 3,000), a small Dutch village a stone's throw from the Belgian border.

The race here is not the Tour de France, but the Acht van Chaam (literally, Eight of Chaam, so named because its circuit resembles the figure 8). And the winner is not the British rider Mark Cavendish but local Dutch boy Bauke Mollema.

The Acht van Chaam (held on July 25) is just one among a plethora of criteriums held in Holland and Belgium that immediately follow the three-week Tour.

These races are much smaller affairs, but some of them, like the Acht (held for the 74th time), are every bit as storied.

In 1980, some 60,000 people crowded the tiny Dutch village to see Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, the winner of the Tour de France that year, race around town.

In 1999 and 2002, Lance Armstrong also raced there after the Tour.

"The Acht was started as an amateur race in 1890 by a small group of friends in the village," said Mr Mart Verhees, who is in the race's organising committee.

That makes the race even older than the Tour de France, which started in 1903.

"Over the years, it got bigger and we started inviting professionals from the Tour de France to compete," he added.

Riders are attracted by fat appearance fees - handsome sums for a mere two to three hours of racing.

For instance, the winner of the yellow jersey at the Tour could command up to 50,000 euros (S$76,000) just for showing up, said Mr Bert Rops, president of the organising committee.

Other jersey winners can fetch about 25,000 euros, while riders that finish high in the general classification (the top 10) can receive fees of up to 20,000 euros.

For riders, this is a big reason results at the Tour are so important.

This year, though, it was uncharacteristically quiet at the Acht, despite the fact that 426 riders turned up.

Said Mr Rops: "This year's Tour was especially (difficult). A lot of riders we invited said they were too tired or wanted to rest for the Olympics. Usually, we try to get one of the jersey winners or someone on the podium."

The best-placed Tour finisher at the Acht this year was Spain's Haimar Zubeldia - sixth overall.

Still, the field was considerably deep, with many Dutch favourites like Mollema and John Hoogerland completing the line-up.

And while the pros concern themselves with the racing, the villagers have less serious things on their minds.

Artist Berrie Martens said: "Every year during the Acht, people from all around the area and people who've moved out from Chaam come back to visit. It's a real reunion."

And indeed it is. The people come for the music festival and a huge party - the Nacht van Chaam (or Night of Chaam, a party that makes ZoukOut look almost adolescent in comparison) - held together with the Acht.

The drinking and revelry spill over onto race day. Indeed, this year, as the day wore on, both sides of the course began to be littered with more and more empty beer cups, surely a sign of fun being had.

Eventual winner Mollema gave the Acht two thumbs up.

He told The New Paper on Sunday: "The parcours here are very good. They're smooth, flat good for racing.

"And the crowds are fantastic. All July, they have watched their favourite riders on television at the Tour and now this is their chance to see them in person."

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