‘La Manche’ is French for ‘the Sleeve’ and it is the endonym by which the French know the English Channel. Take away the ‘La’ and you’re left with ‘Manche’, the name for the Lower Normandy department where the Tour de France 2016 begins. More specifically, the Grand Départ will take place at Le Mont-Saint-Michel – a spectacular island commune that is visited by over three million tourists every year.
From there, the peloton will pedal 188 nervous kilometres to Utah Beach. There’s no pavé or prologue, so the first yellow jersey should go to a sprinter. That said, if the winds are blowing, echelons could form and then anything can happen. With the inevitable early-Tour nerves, GC contenders will have to remain vigilant to stay upright and in contact.
‘Utah Beach’ was the codename for one of the five sites that constituted the Normandy landings, also known as D-Day, on June 6th 1944. Located on the Cotentin Peninsula, it is now the location of a museum that recounts the history of the events. In the way it knows best, the Tour is paying homage to the significance of the Allied invasion by staging what is sure to be a climactic finish at this historic location.
As well as Utah Beach, both Saint-Lô and Cherbourg-en-Cotentin were important strategic locations of D-Day. The Allied plan was to capture Saint-Lô on the first day, cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and then eventually take the important city of Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, which was the only deep-water port in the region. The Allies didn’t make it to the city until June 21st and it took another 5 days of fierce fighting for the Germans to surrender.
While the circumstances can’t be compared, the peloton will take a similar route from Saint-Lô on stage 2 to that of the Allied troops back in 1944. The route is also more or less the same direction and roughly as far (182km) as the opening stage. Unlike the the previous day, however, the riders will have to tackle the uphill finish of the Côte de la Glacerie in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. Although not long at 2 kilometres, an average gradient of 6% and sections of 10% will see puncheurs such as Sagan and Gerrans rubbing handlebars with GC contenders who won’t want to lose any time and will see this as a golden opportunity to strike some early blows. It also means we’re likely to see the yellow jersey change shoulders.
While the beginning of the Tour de France is always a special and exciting affair, the historically rich location of the 2016 edition’s opening two stages promise to add another, more profound dimension to the significance of the occasion. For spectators, and especially those lucky enough to be there, there is little doubt that the introduction of the 2016 Tour de France will be remembered for more significant reasons than the race alone.