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World News

June 27, 2014

Tour de France marks World War I centennial

PARIS — Before sunrise on June 28, 1914, a pack of cyclists set off from Paris on the 12th Tour de France. Hours later, an Austrian archduke stepped out in Sarajevo and was assassinated in the street, igniting the carnage of World War I.

Now, 100 years later, cycling's greatest race is paying special tribute to the millions who fought and died in what came to be known as the Great War. Several stages of the famed Tour de France will run this year along the war's killing fields, trenches and fronts in northern France and Belgium.

The 1914 Tour was the last before a five-year suspension due to the war. Of the 145 riders that day, 15 of them, including three Tour champions, would die in the fighting.

In all, an estimated 45 cyclists who had raced in pre-war Tours were killed in the 1914-1918 war, according to cycling historian Jean-Paul Bourgier.

The Tour itself has a complicated history with the war. Its founder, Henri Desgrange, joined in the warmongering, using his L'Auto newspaper to issue a lusty call for his countrymen "to go get those bastards."

"When your rifle butt will be on their chest, they will ask you for forgiveness. Don't let them trick you. Pull the trigger without pity," Desgrange wrote, according to Graham Healy's book "The Shattered Peloton."

After the war, Desgrange pledged to never let a German rider compete in the Tour, a threat that was never carried out.

This year's three-week Tour begins July 5 in Leeds, England, before crossing the English Channel three days later. Riders and fans will have several occasions to pay homage to war victims: Stages 5 through 10 largely trace the 400-mile (645-kilometer) long Western Front, from Ypres, Belgium, to the Swiss border near the northeastern French city of Mulhouse.

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