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Normandy: Cycling’s crucible

Normandy, the region of France the Tour de France entered Thursday andexits on Saturday, has probably seen more bike racing than anywhere elsein the world. The very first cycling road race took place between Parisand Rouen in 1869 when the roads were dusty and rocky, and the bikes werecrude, chainless velocipedes — pedal cranks were attached directly to thefront wheel hub. The winner of that inaugural Paris-Rouen race was an Englishmanliving in Paris, Dr. James Moore, who customized his hubs with ball bearings,made for him by prisoners in a Paris jail.Paris-Rouen gave birth to a series of

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By John Wilcockson

Normandy, the region of France the Tour de France entered Thursday andexits on Saturday, has probably seen more bike racing than anywhere elsein the world. The very first cycling road race took place between Parisand Rouen in 1869 when the roads were dusty and rocky, and the bikes werecrude, chainless velocipedes — pedal cranks were attached directly to thefront wheel hub. The winner of that inaugural Paris-Rouen race was an Englishmanliving in Paris, Dr. James Moore, who customized his hubs with ball bearings,made for him by prisoners in a Paris jail.Paris-Rouen gave birth to a series of similar races that traverse Normandy,headed by the most prestigious French amateur classic, Paris-Evreux. Itwas in such races that riders like Thursday’s stage 5 winner Jaan Kirsipuu— an Estonian who moved to France early in his racing career — once competedto obtain a first professional team contract. Kirsipuu was on familiarground Thursday, as a member of the five-man breakaway that reached thefinish in Rouen a half-minute before the pack.Kirsipuu and his four companions were a tad lucky to stay clear of thepack because the peloton’s pace was on target to catch them until a masspileup disrupted things 16km from the finish. The pileup happened on astraight stretch of road coming into Quincampoix, the hometown of Normandy’sgreatest ever cyclist Jacques Anquetil, who is buried in the local churchyard.Anquetil made his Tour debut in 1957, winning the stage into Rouen on thethird day and going on to win the race overall. In 1964, he became thefirst man to win a fifth Tour de France.Many things in cycling have changed since Anquetil’s day, but racingprotocol has not. When a large part of the pack hits the deck, as happenedThursday, a partial truce is called to allow the fallen or delayed ridersto catch back on — especially when, as in this case, the crash includedthe leaders of three teams, Laurent Dufaux of Alessio, Didier Rous of Bonjourand Rik Verbrugghe of Lotto-Adecco. Without that incident, the break wouldprobably have been caught, and the finish in Rouen most likely would havebeen a carbon copy of the mass sprint that took place behind the Kirsipuugroup — a sprint that went to stage 3 winner Robbie McEwen ahead of hisfellow Australians Baden Cooke and Stuart O’Grady.The three Australians will be the sprinters to look for when stage 6of the Tour heads into downtown Alençon on Friday afternoon. Therewas a time not too long ago when sprint finishes in the Tour were dominatedby the Belgians. No longer. The Anglo-Saxons are re-claiming a sport thatDr. Moore inaugurated in Normandy 133 years ago.DETAILSOF STAGE 6: Forges-les-Eaux to Alençon, 199.5km.
INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: Les Andelys (47km), St. Sulpicesur Risle (133.5km) and Courtomer (164.5km). Cat. 4 climbsat Val d’Any (61km) and St. Vigor (71.5km).WEATHER FORECAST: After starting in sunshine with temperaturesin the mid-60s, the skies will become cloudier with a strong chance ofheavy rain showers in the latter part of the stage. The race will likelyend on wet, slick roads. Winds will be light early, strengthening to 25mph out of the south by the finish.