You always remember the first time you do something new or see something different. I did both one late-June day in 1963 when I traveled out of my native Britain for the first time, and I did it by taking an air ferry across the English Channel—my first experience of flying. That night, I pitched my tent in a French campground near Abbeville, where this Wednesday’s stage 4 of the 99th Tour de France will start, and the next morning I rode south to intercept the route of that 50th Tour’s stage 4 from Roubaix to Rouen.
My first-ever sight of the Tour was from a grassy bank in Normandy overlooking a route nationale on a sunny and windy afternoon. First came the rowdy publicity caravan, something completely new for this Englishman who until then had seen nothing bigger than the amateur Tour of Britain—which didn’t have a publicity caravan, nor closed roads, like the Tour.
That day many decades ago was most memorable for the fact that near the head of the peloton, wearing the yellow jersey, was the Irishman Shay Elliott. He’d won the previous stage across the cobbles into Roubaix with a solo break, and so he became the first “English speaker” to lead the world’s biggest bike race. It was quite an honor to be there that day. Now, after 10 Tours have been won by Americans and this year could see the first-ever Commonwealth podium (Australia, Great Britain, Canada perhaps?), English speakers have replaced the French, Italian and Belgians as top dogs.
Last year, on the Fourth of July, Tyler Farrar won a Tour stage for the first time. Perhaps he or another American can celebrate once more. Farrar has had incredibly bad luck this week, getting involved in crash after crash, but he still has a ready smile for reporters and maybe things will work for him again soon. His form is coming good and, despite the crashes that affected his teammates on the road to Boulogne-sur-Mer, Farrar’s Garmin-Sharp team would love to get a stage win for its sprinter.
Stage 4 from Abbeville to Rouen is a long one at 214.5 kilometers and looks made for a successful long breakaway, now that aggressive riders such as Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge, Karsten Kroon of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff and Jérôme Pineau of Omega Pharma are more than 10 minutes down overall and so not a GC threat. However, the weather could work against a breakaway. After a long ride hugging the Channel coastline, the route turns sharp left at Fécamp, and most of the remaining 74 kilometers will be on wide, straight roads exposed to strong crosswinds from the south. There’s also rain in the forecast for late afternoon in Normandy.
This is classic terrain for stronger teams like Garmin and BMC Racing, to form fast-moving echelons that could split the field and condemn any breakaways. Rouen has seen some surprise result over the years, notably in 1957 when hometown hero Jacques Anquetil won his first-ever Tour stage here and went on to win that year’s Tour and again in 1965, when another Tour rookie, Felice Gimondi won from a breakaway in Rouen and he too went on to overall victory.
More usual, as in the Tour I first witnessed, when the stage was taken by Belgian sprinter Frans Melckenbeeck, the Rouen stage ends in a bunch gallop. If that’s the case on Wednesday then the odds are again on Britain’s Mark Cavendish to take the honors. Though Farrar will certainly want to mount a good challenge.
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John will be commenting Wednesday on the outcome of stage 4