REIMS, France — What could be more fitting than a German winning a Tour de France stage in Reims, a symbol of postwar reconciliation?
Well, that's just what speedster Andre Greipel did on Thursday, winning Stage 6 in yet another crash-marred affair as Italy's Vincenzo Nibali held on to the yellow jersey.
This Champagne-Ardenne region is all too familiar with determined, healthy young men who understand sacrifice: This was a major battleground of the First World War, and the race is paying tribute in many ways to those who died in it.
Here are five things to know about Stage 6:
PRESIDENT OF THE PACK: At a race teeming with statistics and records, French President Francois Hollande extended his streak of Tour visits to three straight years. In this centennial year of the start of World War I, the Socialist leader honored the fallen in a ceremony at the military cemetery of Cerny-en-Laonnois, near the course route. Hollande also hitched a ride in the car with Tour director Christian Prudhomme, and spoke at a fort that was attacked and bombarded many times during the war. Since his election in 2012, Hollande has never missed a Tour. This latest visit takes a particular meaning, because the course in northern France and southern Belgium this week is covering many battle zones. Though they didn't have much time for sightseeing in Thursday's nervous, drizzle-doused stage, the riders passed by the Chemin des Dames, a major battlefield, but Hollande stopped. Speaking to French TV, he said the site had special personal meaning: His grandfather fought there.
Thousands of blue cornflowers have been planted at Chemin des Dames, part of a string of battlefields where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers died. Like poppies in England, the cornflowers symbolize World War I soldiers. The French army's most disastrous offensive took place on the site in April 1917.
WHEN IN REIMS...: The French leader, in the TV interview, said it could be seen as appropriate that a German won Thursday's stage in Reims: The city has become a symbol of postwar reconciliation, which "celebrated very early on the friendship between France and Germany ... even though it was a martyred city." The German army bombarded the city for more than three years, destroying 80 percent of the town and severely damaging its famed cathedral, where many French kings were crowned. The cathedral, a World Heritage site, is on land where Clovis, France's first king, was baptized in 496, and is the final resting place of more than two dozen French monarchs. Also in Reims, the French and Germans signed an amnesty in May 1945 at the end of World War II. A half-century ago, President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer came together to celebrate Franco-German reconciliation.
... AND WHEN IT POURS: For Jim Ochowicz, the treacherous, muddy, rainy ride along cobblestones in Stage 5 was "somewhat epic" — memorable for the unusual combination of bumps and windy, rainy July weather. The BMC general manager — a former U.S. Olympic cyclist who helped Lance Armstrong's career get going — said pretty much only Dutch stage winner Lars Boom and overall race leader Vincenzo Nibali had a good day on Wednesday. For "90 percent of the riders," said Ochowicz, it was a day of "flat tires, crashes, bad day ..."
"We haven't had a stage like this in a long time in the Tour, nor have we had weather like this in July, this early in the race," he said on Thursday in Arras, referring to the previous day's stage. "The combination of the two make it somewhat epic." Asked about some riders who complained about the selection of the cobblestones, Ochowicz shrugged, saying: "I don't have an opinion one way or another. It's bike racing. We ride outdoors. It's raining today. It's windy: We don't have a choice." Easy for him to say, perhaps: BMC team leader Tejay van Garderen questioned the route selection. He crashed on two roundabouts on Wednesday, and some frustration was bared. He also lamented the departure of defending champion Chris Froome, who quit after crashing twice. "You guys got your drama. But that kind of takes the whole race down a notch, when you have a big favorite who's now out," Van Garderen said. "In theory it could make the race less exciting toward the end. The ASO, they need to rethink putting days like this in the race." He was referring to Tour operator Amaury Sports Organization. Van Garderen declined a request to speak with The Associated Press during his warm-up before Thursday's stage.
BRUISES AND BEYOND: Three riders dropped out — taking the total to nine — and another 11 joined them in the race medical report with bruises, scrapes, and fractures after Thursday's wind-swept ride. Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who bruised up his left side, and French champion Arnaud Demare, who scraped up his right knee and elbow, were among the big-name riders to come down with about 80 kilometers left. Big BMC rider Marcus Burghardt, who was also entangled in that crash, said the road was slick. "There were guys crashing in front of me," said the German, who won a Tour stage in 2008. "I had a hard impact on the tarmac with my shoulder and felt directly that something was not right." Team doctor Max Testa said Burghardt had a joint separation and faced a "50-50 possibility" of starting on Friday.
Xabier Zandio of Team Sky was taken to hospital with a severe back injury, and Spain's Jesus Hernandez bumped his head badly in a fall. They joined Egor Silin, who broke his collarbone, in abandoning the race. Silin's Katusha team said the Russian rider was to undergo surgery in a Reims hospital.
VINO'S VISION: Alexandre Vinokourov, manager of Nibali's Astana team, was sounding upbeat after the Italian rider gained ground a day earlier on his leading rivals. According to the tour website, the Olympic champion from Kazakhstan and longtime crowd-pleaser when he rode at the Tour, believes Nibali is the man to beat now. Vinokourov credited Nibali for being a "clever" rider, who doesn't fear the pressure of wearing the yellow jersey, and sets his goals "perfectly."
Eds: Sylvie Corbet and Louise Dewast contributed from Paris.