SAINT-LO, France — The landing beaches. The war cemeteries. The museums. The first towns that were liberated more than 70 years ago.
The D-Day and World War II history that is embedded in the culture of Normandy is earning extra spotlight this weekend when the Tour de France opens with two stages in the region.
Saturday's opening leg starts at Mont-Saint-Michel, a World Heritage Benedictine abbey perched on a rock off the coast, and ends at Utah Beach, one of the key landing sites for Allied troops on June 6, 1944.
The first stage also passes through Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where American paratrooper John Steele dangled from a clock tower after his parachute got caught during the invasion, and survived. The town is now home to the Airborne Museum.
Stage 2 on Sunday finishes in Cherbourg-En-Cotentin, site of the Battle of Cherbourg.
Tejay van Garderen, the BMC rider who represents the United States' best hope for overall victory in the Tour, was wide eyed as he took a look around this week.
"It really puts into perspective what we're doing here," Van Garderen said on Friday. "We always say that we're soldiers going to war and then you see the real soldiers and you're like, 'OK, maybe this is just bike racing.'"
Teams were driven into the official team presentation in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on World War II-era jeeps and trucks on Thursday.
"I like the way organizers and the local people here have put together the appropriate historical reminders, that teams have been accompanied on the jeeps by the local people in costumes," said Brian Cookson, the British president of the International Cycling Union.
A legacy of the war was freedom, underlined by the diversity of the Tour teams.
Van Garderen, who was in third place when he had to abandon last year's Tour in tears due to illness four stages from the end, shares the BMC leadership with Australian standout Richie Porte. They are backed by riders from Germany, Italy, France, Switerzland, and Belgium.
"We're such an international team," Van Garderen said. "It shows that the world has come a long way."
The top favorites for overall victory in the three-week race are two-time winner Chris Froome of Britain, two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana of Colombia, and two-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain.
After Saturday's stage, American, British, Canadian, French, and German riders will take part in a ceremony on Utah Beach to commemorate the Allied landings.
Amael Moinard, a French member of BMC, was born in Cherbourg and knows all about D-Day.
"Growing up here, I've been into it from an early age because all our school trips were related to D-Day commemorations: Utah Beach, the Sainte-Mere-Eglise museum, the Caen memorial," Moinard said. "Then the 50th D-Day anniversary was something big for me, with all the presidents from countries across the world coming to Normandy. It has always been in the back of my mind, so it's nice to start here from a historical standpoint."
Like the paratroopers before him, Moinard has a deep understanding of the winds in La Manche, as this area of Normandy is called. The way he sees it, the seven kilometers (four miles) of open and exposed road along the coast with 30 kilometers to go in the opening stage will create more damage from fear about the wind — which has the potential to split the peloton in two — than the wind itself.
"As soon as you see the sea on the map each rider will say, 'It's going to be windy, tricky,'" Moinard explained. "It's going to make everybody nervous and for sure a crash will happen. So all of the leaders and sprinters will want to be in the front.
"But then we take a much more protected road for the last 25K," Moinard added. "So it's more telling them, 'Just be relaxed. Everything is going to be OK, hopefully.'"
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.
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