An Alpe d'Huez monument honors the fallen during...

Amid a ghastly history, and pedaling right through it

The land cannot tell its stories, and so the Tour does its part; bit by bit and year by year it reminds the sport and its viewers of wars and things past

LILLE, France (VN) — On Wednesday morning, the Tour de France peloton will dot itself across the north of France and Belgium, rolling over battlefields of the Great War and by plain white crosses with no names. It’s been 100 years since the start of a war that killed 16 million people.

The bunch will depart near the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, and course over nine cobblestone sectors. It will make its way into Alsace and Lorraine, through Arras, Douaumont, Verdun, and the Chemin des Dames on a fifth stage tour organizers charted as a way to honor the centenary of World War I. It will finish in Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.

For the riders here at the Tour, it’s not just another stage, but there’s also an overwhelming effect. At the world’s biggest and most difficult bike race, it’s hard to pay attention to anything but racing.

“Honestly, in the race we don’t tune into that very much,” said Garmin-Sharp’s Alex Howes. “But I’ve done U23 Roubaix three times now …. Just training in that area and riding around, you see hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of graves. And they’re all unmarked, just plain white crosses. It’s pretty surreal … it’s hard, it takes a while to comprehend what you’re looking at.”

In the squares of towns here there are stone lists of those who died in the fighting. Some are lengthy, others much shorter. The land cannot tell its stories and so the Tour does its part; bit by bit and year by year it reminds the sport and its viewers of wars and things past. In this way the arena of cycling is a highlighter to the open book of the land’s histories, wherever the races wander.

“A lot of the work that goes into the race is really, strictly, technically based,” said Garmin-Sharp director Charly Wegelius. “But also, that’s the beauty of cycling — that it interacts with the world around it. We don’t just go to stadiums and play our game. I think it’s nice when the organizers can build the race around the culture and the history of the countries that we race in. I think it’s pretty hard to drive by a war memorial and see those kinds of places without it affecting you. They’re really striking places.”

The Tour is a ticker-tape of ever-passing moments, impossible to bundle and contextualize in the blink of a race; among the peloton there is a sense of place but perhaps not an active participation in it.

“Of course, anything less than 100 percent focus during the race, it’s going to put you on the floor,” Howes said. “But we do pay attention to that stuff off the bike a little bit, and obviously in training you get to immerse yourself in that sort of thing a little bit more. It’s always a privilege to ride through that area.”

Ted King (Cannondale) said it’s also a matter of lacking the proper time. “It’s akin to my first Giro d’Italia. We finished by racing through Rome. And you’re surrounded by these cathedrals and so forth. You know that you’re steeped in rich history, but you don’t have the full time to take in the full appreciation,” he said.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step, a team based in Flanders, adorned a sleeve of its jerseys with a poppy symbol as a commemorative gesture to the Great War. The flowers grew across the fields of Flanders, and the poppy on the jersey is bright red, to note the bloodshed here.

“This tragic War is still part of everyday life for a large number of people in West Flanders,” the team’s CEO, Patrick Lefevere, said in a release. “Our team is Belgian based, our headquarters is located in Wevelgem, in the heart of Flanders; this is why we decided to show our respect to the soldiers fallen in those battles, whatever their nationality … Sport has always been an instrument of unity, not division. We hope this small gesture of ours can contribute to the remembrance of one of the worst human tragedies that left a deep scar across our lands.”

The team has also placed a hashtag — #wedonotforget — on its jerseys for the day.

BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz is reading up on the history of the battles as the race makes its way through the region that saw heavy casualties.

“That’s because I’m an American, maybe. I don’t know what other people see in that,” Ochowicz said. “I do, I see the graveyards and monuments of famous places that our fathers and grandfathers defended.”