The Tour de France of 2019 rolled out of Brussels today with the air of a royal pageant; this Belgian Grand Depart acting as a homage to one Eddy Merckx. It’s fifty years since the man known as ‘The Cannibal’ rode, and won, his first Tour de France.
Stage one, today, was an Eddy fest.
As guest of honour he led the race on a ceremonial soiree through the city, head popping out from the race director’s car, a cross between The Pope and King Philippe of Belgium (but more popular and less religious).
Merckx took the acclaim and waved the wave of a man used to adulation, before the race got down to business.
And at the drop of the flag went fellow Belgian Greg van Avermaet like a rat up a drainpipe, and with the small matter of national pride at stake. Looping its way through the Flandrian countryside required le Tour to rendezvous today with one or two of the cornerstones of Belgian classics cycling.
We’re talking bergs and cobblestones. The twin combo of the Kapelmuur and the Bosberg. Climbs of near hallowed significance in these parts.
Can you imagine the outcry had a non-Belgian crested these great symbols of manhood at the head of the race?
Van Avermaet could, and took matters in to his own hands.
It’s true that a Grand Tour on these roads is a more civilised sight than a peloton full of classics riders; elbows out, near trading blows, fighting for position through the sideways rain and cowshit smeared roads of early spring.
But still.Embed from Getty Images
Van Avermaet grappled these ascents to the acclaim of his fellow countrymen, leaving three breakaway companions in his wake. The very essence of Belgium secured. Job done. And with that, he sat up and rolled back to the peloton, leaving others to play the role of doomed escapees.
The Tour de France, as we know, has a vibe all of its own. It’s busy, noisy, and full of stress. In the early stages, with riders fresh and adrenalin fuelled, it’s insanely fast. Crashes always happen. People always get hurt. Bravery, in the face of actual danger, is required.
With twenty-five kilometres to go, from an overhead camera shot, teams were pulling into formation. Lead-outs for the inevitable sprint already taking position, crammed together tightly and rattling like a runaway train into the Belgian capital.
Several kilometres later, unsurprisingly, comes crash number one. Jacob Fuglsang, one of the favourites, on the deck, blood streaming dramatically down his face, looking bewildered, dare I say concussed?
He fought back, and saved his day, but not the best start.Embed from Getty Images
Remarkably, a further fifteen accident free kilometres passed before crash number two. By this stage the race is pelting along at eighty kilometres per hour. The laws of physics being prodded, and poked, and sized up for areas of weakness.
And then a big spill.
The first third of the peloton sail clear with the rest held up, the big favourite for the day’s stage (and, lest we forget, the first yellow jersey of the race) Dylan Groenewegen sitting, confused, battered and bruised on the asphalt.
‘His’ yellow jersey riding off into the distance.
But on the shoulders of whom?
Peter Sagan? Caleb Ewan? Elia Viviani?
No. Only his own lead out man and Jumbo Visma teammate Mike Teunissen; untethered from his sprinter, leading himself out to pip Sagan by the width of a carbon rim.
The messy, frantic, crash-laden finish was par for the course. Standard issue Tour stage. The winner, and new Yellow Jersey (joining a select club of only two hundred odd riders to have ever earned it), unexpected, to say the least.
Our Tour de France is underway.
Expect further drama.
(Top Image: By Nationaal Archief – cut from Joop Zoetemelk en Eddy Merckx schudden elkaar de hand/ Joop Zoetemelk en Eddy Merckx shaking hands, No restrictions,)https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7554499