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Huy, July 11
The difficult opening to this stage, with its Ardennes climbs of Celles, Marquisette, Ave-et-Auffe and Rendu, should not fool us. The day’s 215km are theoretically reserved for the sprinters, and the renowned Tom Steels could again make his strength known, as long as the German Erik Zabel — already a record five-time winner of the green jersey — doesn’t decide to lay the foundations for a sixth triumph in the points competition in Verdun.
Aah, Verdun. With or without cycling, for every Frenchman Verdun remains a name that defies understanding, where thousands of soldiers were slaughtered in World War I.
Remember, it was necessary to wait until 1993 for the Tour de France to bring its turbulent caravan here. And, remember the emotion that grew as the peloton passed the Douaumont military graves. Remember also the tension that remained every step of the way — that Stephen Roche, Dominique Arnould and Giancarlo Perrini pulled ahead in the last kilometers, but could not prevent the arrival of another trio, made up of Ronan Pensec, Raúl Alcala and Lance Armstrong. Yes, the same Armstrong, then 21 years of age and inevitably the stage winner, as he had wanted it so much in his first Tour to make a name for himself. “It was Arnould who worried me the most,” he told L’Équipe. “Then, once the sprint began, I jumped on the right so that he couldn’t take my wheel….”
Eight years later, can we expect that Tour history will repeat itself? We don’t dare respond, according to the notion that “it would take a miracle,” because Armstrong would likely see that as an invitation!