ARENBERG, France (AP) — Tour de France riders were too busy negotiating rain-slicked roads and hazardous cobblestone sections to notice the countryside during a drama-filled fifth stage on Wednesday.
To mark the centenary of the start of World War I, the Tour was routed especially to pass notable battlefields.
But the trek from Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut, was too much of a pain on its own for the peloton to take in former parts of the Western Front: Defending champion Chris Froome crashed twice and withdrew, while Vincenzo Nibali crashed but got up and extended his overall lead.
Here are five things to know about Stage 5:
FIRST WORLD WAR REMEMBERED: Tour riders and race organizers paid homage to the sacrifices made by their forebears of a century ago with the first of a series of stages across the battlefields of World War I. Riders assembled in Ypres within sight of the Menin Gate, a monument to British soldiers killed in action and whose bodies were never identified. Race organizers said they wanted to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war by sending riders over roads that once ran along the 650-kilometer(400-mile) Western Front, from western Belgium to the Franco-Swiss border, where an estimated 5 million soldiers were killed from 1914-18.
The tribute will continue on Thursday's stage from Arras to Reims. Riders will pass the site of the Somme battlefields as well as the Chemin des Dames, where hundreds of thousands of combatants lost their lives in the French army's most disastrous offensive of the war. Three pre-war Tour champions were killed in the war: Octave Lapize (1910), Francois Faber (1909) and Lucien Petit-Breton (1907-08).
KITTEL'S RECORD: Marcel Kittel's stage victory on Tuesday in Lille was his third in the first four stages. That was last achieved in 1909 by Francois Faber of Luxembourg. Faber went on to win that Tour by capturing six of 14 stages including five in a row. He led the race from Stage 2 to the end in Paris. Kittel, a sprint specialist, can't hope to match Faber's performance. But with another sprint finish expected on Thursday's run into Reims, Kittel could match his 2013 total of four stage wins before this year's Tour finishes its first week.
IT'S DIFFERENT IN THE RAIN: Preparing for a Tour stage like Wednesday's cobblestoned obstacle course requires detailed planning by team sport directors and mechanics. U.S. squad Garmin-Sharp's boss, Jonathan Vaughters, said equipment, tactics and mentality are all different for a stage like this — more so given the day's steady downpour. "The tires are about twice as wide, and they're pumped up to a lower pressure for more shock absorption," Vaughters said. "The bikes are longer, a little bit less stiff, and we don't use electronic shifting for this, just the old school mechanical shifting." Garmin-Sharp's main aim on the day was to keep its leader, American rider Andrew Talansky, safe from crashes. The team also boasts a winner of the cobblestoned Paris-Roubaix race in Johan Vansummeren, in 2011. Because of the wet conditions, riders tried to keep to the "crown," or raised center line of the cobblestoned sectors, Vaughters said, as opposed to the packed earth on the roadsides, which riders prefer in drier weather. "Dead down the middle. You start going off on the side and you get mud puddles and sliding off and everything. It's different in the rain," Vaughters said. Tasked with mentally preparing the squad for the day's challenge, Vaughters said, "The only thing I can compare it to is a Navy Seal unit, that's the mentality today."
TAKING A BREAK: Tour riders get two rest days during the three-week race, but often journalists covering the race work straight through. French reporters subject to France's famous 35-hour work week law, however, are finding they too deserve a break — or at least one top Tour media personality does. Thierry Adam, the France Televisions announcer whose voice has become synonymous with the Tour for French audiences over the last decade, had to miss Tuesday's stage after a labor inspector ruled the state-owned broadcaster must abide by regulations governing weekly rest obligations for employees. It was the first time Adam missed a Tour stage since he began covering the Tour on the back of a motorcycle in 2001. Officials at France Televisions' sports department, confirming a report on Wednesday in French sports daily L'Equipe, said the work inspector denied the company's request for an exemption to allow Adam to work during Stage 4. Adam will not miss another stage on the Tour, though: He can take rest days along with the riders on July 15 and 21.
SCHLECK-TUAL HEALING: 2010 Tour champ Andy Schleck underwent successful surgery on his right knee on Wednesday, two days after a nasty spill caused him to abandon the race. The Trek Factory Racing rider will be on crutches for at least two weeks after doctors repaired partial ruptures in his collateral and cruciate ligaments, as well as a torn meniscus, and damage to his articular cartilage, according to team doctor Andreas Gosele. In a statement, Schleck said he was "gutted. My knee looks like there's been an explosion inside. There's nothing else I can do. Acceptance is the first step of my rehab and I'm working on that now."
AP writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.