Allez les bleus! Ooops, no sorry, that's for football (what some call soccer, whatever). Saturday, July 5 saw the departure of the three-week long Tour de France starting in... Leeds, Yorkshire in the north east of England, don't ask. But this year, there is a good reason to start the famed Tour in an ally country of France, a friendly and supportive way to show they care, as the race will extensively commemorate the centenary of WWI, riding by several tragic war fields from England to Belgium, and even to the Swiss border.
A hundred years ago, in 1914, as the Tour riders departed Paris, the first (as in number one) World War started with the assassination in Sarajevo (Bosnia) of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir of the Austrian Empire, by Gavrilo Princip. This event started a chain of circumstances that led to the British, the French and the Russian armies to battle against the German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish soldiers, killing about 10 millions, including three Tour de France champions. The Tour went on that year, but was then cancelled during the war, until 1919.
Running from Saturday, July 5 to the glorious arrival in Paris on Sunday, July 27, the Tour de France this year will cover a total distance of 3,664 kilomètres, or 2,277 miles, for those not keen on the (mandatory, may I add) metric system. This will be the 101st Tour, which was born on July 1, 1903, with 60 pioneers on bicycles -- and you should have seen THOSE bicycles. Wars prevented the event for some years.
In this year's Tour, the caravan will pass through various landmarks of the Great War, such as Notre Dame de Lorette, the Ablain Saint-Nazaire French Military Cemetery, the site of three cruel battles in the north of France; the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres (Belgium) and the Verdun battlefield, where my enlisted grandfather spent a year with his division, without any food supply, ending up eating nearby abandoned farmhouses' cats and rats. True story.
The stars of past Tour are five-time winners French Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx, and Spanish Miguel Indurain -- and I won't/can't include Lance Armstrong, who won seven times, yes, but was disqualified in the end, and won none as a result. The latest race of 2013 was won by Brit Chris Froome. The first American winner was Greg LeMond who finished first for two years in a row, in 1989 and 1990.
Twenty-two teams take part in the difficult race, each team has nine cyclists, for a total of 198 riders. Each team member must wear the exact same team outfit (shorts, jersey, socks, shoes, gloves, and helmet). But there are special colors worn by special athletes: the fastest leader wears a yellow jersey (maillot jaune); the leader in points is in a green jersey; the so-called King of the Mountain (best mountain climber) wears white with red polka dots; and a cyclist under the age of 26, who has the lowest cumulative time wears a white jersey.
This year, Chris Froome returns as a favorite, along with Mark Cavendish (UK), winner of the most stage (day) wins, Alberto Contador (Spain), Marcel Kittel (Germany), winner last year of the final stage finish on the Champs-Elysées, Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), a fierce climber, and Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain), at 35 still a threat to younger riders.
The itinerary of the race 2014 includes Leeds and London in England, le Touquet, Ypres, Nancy, Grenoble, Carcassonne and Pau in France. Several stops in-between will include Belgium at Ypres, and Spain at Pau. The grand finale in Paris is always a big event followed by thousands of fans, along with massive traffic headache, as many streets of the city are shut down for the passage of the, by then, elated and exhausted cyclists.
How do they go from England to France you might ask, do they swim it? Each day's stage does not necessarily start from where it stopped the previous day. Between stages, the Tour de France Caravan, a 250-vehicle strong mobile unit will go on road trips, boat trips, or even plane flights to get the riders and their massive entourage to the next starting line. Last year the Tour started in Corsica (a French Island), and no, they did not swim across the Mediterranean Sea.
Funny anecdote: In 2008, in celebration of its 400th year, the mayor of Quebec City (Canada) applied to the organization of the Tour de France to be the point of departure for the riders that year. Some distance for sure, he must have been a real fan. After careful deliberation, the Tour declined, citing the dreadful time difference and the tiresome plane ride that would have been detrimental to the participants, in messing up their internal clock, and their health.
Ladies and gentlemen, make your bets! Good luck to all!