'Lest we forget' - WWI dead honoured at Tour de France

by Damian MCCALL
1 / 2
The Somme Battlefield Pipe Band played as the peloton set off on a stage that started by passing World War I sites around Arras on Sunday

Kilted pipers beside World War I memorials in Arras on Sunday reminded Tour de France fans that beneath their feet are the tunnels dug by Allied troops during the Great War.

Organisers decided a departure from the site would be fitting on the centenary of the end of the 1914-18 war, but, while they shortened the stage to accomodate the kick-off of the World Cup final, they may not have figured on such a festive feel on the day France play Croatia in Moscow.

The war memorial just beside the start of Sunday's ninth stage bears 35,942 names of soldiers who fell in the battles of Arras and have no known last resting place. It is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is a stark reminder of the town's bloody past.

Not that the blaring publicity caravan, nor the vast crowds out on this holiday Sunday, who grew up with the memorial on their doorstep, took much notice.

- The 'Cobbled Hell' -

Cycling news ahead of stage nine was focussed on a pile up in the peloton on Saturday which sent Germany's Tony Martin to the local hospital with a fractured vertebrae and left Ireland's Dan Martin bleeding and battered ahead of a 150km run from here to Roubaix that includes 22km of old cobbled mining roads.

Those same mines were converted by New Zealand tunnellers into accommodation for the troops during WWI, and the race embarks above them.

Sky rider Geraint Thomas, who enters the stage just seven seconds behind overall leader Greg Van Avermaet, said in May the cobbles here: "Could have been chucked off the back of a truck", because of how rough and uneven they are.

Thomas fell that day on the second section of cobbles (there are 15 Sunday) and did not finish the spring classic Paris-Roubaix.

The entire unit of motorcycle police on duty have been equiped with moto-cross style bikes for this stage, the publicity caravan will not cross the cobbles either and photographers were preparing face masks and bandanas to help protect them against the clouds of dust.

"It's going to be hell alright," one photographer told AFP, and the 30-degree Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) heat and the dry conditions that have prevailed since late spring in the region will make it worse.

- 'It's going to hurt' -

UAE Team Emirates captain Dan Martin was just one of many going into this race with a sense of trepidation.

"I'll try to race, but obviously with the cobbles, it's going to hurt," said the 31-year-old.

Green jersey and race favourite Sunday Peter Sagan was his usual imperturbable self.

"It's only 150km," he said. "Just three-and-a-half hours."

"Greg will be in there and there will maybe be around 50 of us going for it," he said.

"But let's see, you never know," he added meaning that, after a fairly boring week one of the Tour big guns could light the fuse, as Vincenzo Nibali did on the cobbles four year ago when he attacked in the rain, while Chris Froome crashed, and gained the edge that set him up to win that edition of the Tour de France.

The Somme Battlefield Pipe Band played as the peloton set off on a stage that started by passing World War I sites around Arras on Sunday.

The Tour de France started in Arras from the site of a memorial wall that shows the names of some 24,000 allied soldiers.