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Tour set to begin in somber setting

 
Tejay van Garderen, shown in last year’s Tour de France, says scenes of World War II battles put things in perspective.
Tejay van Garderen, shown in last year’s Tour de France, says scenes of World War II battles put things in perspective.
Published July 2, 2016

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.

Today's opening leg (6:30 a.m., NBCSN) starts at Mont-Saint-Michel, a World Heritage Benedictine abbey perched on a rock off the coast, and ends at Utah Beach, a key landing site 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 Friday. "We always say that we're soldiers going to war and then you see the real soldiers and you're like, 'Okay, maybe this is just bike racing.' "

Teams were driven into the official team presentation in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on WWII-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.

Meanwhile, cyclists suspected of using hidden motors will be stopped even in the middle of a stage, Cookson said.

The International Cycling Union is deploying a magnetic resonance test and thermal cameras to catch any cheats.

"We can do the tests at the start, at the finish, we can take bikes during the race if there are any changes or so," Cookson said. "It's not just the bikes that the riders start off the race, we test the bikes on the cars, we test the bikes on the teams' trucks as well."