The 2019 Tour de France had a great start on a very sunny Saturday in Brussels, Belgium. The Grand Départ in Brussels has been themed around the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx's first of five Tour victories in 1969. The words 'ARE YOU R'EDDY?' were chalked everywhere on the Brussels streets.
Organisers warned that traffic would be severe around Brussels during the four days that spanned the Grand Départ event, but that didn't keep the fans from showing up. Half a million people were said to have attended the start of La Grande Boucle on Saturday.
On Thursday, there was the team presentation at a packed Grand Place – the historic central square of Brussels, with its magnificent city hall. Eddy Merckx was celebrated on the podium there, with cycling fans cheering "Eddy, Eddy, Eddy". Organisers claimed that 75,000 people were present somewhere along the presentation route.
"I'm really happy to be here for the Grand Départ. I don't need extra motivation. There are a lot of family and friends here, and it's great to be able to ride through Brussels without traffic," Van Avermaet said, jokingly referring to the typical Brussels traffic problems.
The day before the actual Grand Départ, Merckx, his wife Claudine, their family, Merckx's former teammates and Tour organiser Christian Prudhomme were all received by King Philippe of Belgium and his wife Queen Mathilde at their castle in Laeken, in the north of Brussels.
There, a quite remarkable group photo was taken on the same stairs where Merckx, Claudine and his teammates had been standing 50 years earlier with the late King Baudouin and his wife Fabiola. King Philippe had clearly been a big fan of Merckx, and had witnessed the 1969 Tour de France as a nine-year-old boy.
"You're our hero, and you've also been my personal hero. When I was young, back in 1969, we were all sitting around the radio while we were on holiday in the south of France. You were fantastic. You were our hero. You won by 18 minutes, and it's a great childhood memory. King Baudouin, my uncle, was here with you and all your teammates, who are here now, too. It's magnificent," King Philippe said.
On Saturday, the 176 riders signed on at the start podium next to the Royal Palace in Brussels, receiving a warm welcome from the huge amount of fans. The Belgian riders received a particularly big round of applause, as expected, but Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was a public favourite.
"It's fun," Naesen told Cyclingnews at the teams presentation. "You feel it. It's much bigger than the Tour of Flanders.
"I don't know how it's going to be along the route, but I'm sure Geraardsbergen is going to be crazy – the whole region there," he said, referring to the town and its cobbled climb of the Muur, which featured on stage 1 and also features on the route of the Tour of Flanders one-day Classic each spring.
"The fans were really cheering me on when I stepped up the podium. I have to enjoy it. I've done the Tour de France a few times already, and I know how hard it is. It's really important to enjoy it while you can because it's not always going to be as nice as this," Naesen said.
"The applause was impressive; it was fantastic. I think that everyone in Belgium is enjoying it. I have some family and friends here, and there'll also be people in Tervuren. It's nice to know that they are going to be there. It's super nice," Stuyven said.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is one of France's biggest hopes for a top result in the general classification, and knew that the Belgian crowd would be ready for the Grand Départ.
"All along the course there's going to be a lot of people. We all know Belgium is a cycling-crazy country. It's extra nice with the homage for Eddy Merckx," Pinot said.
At noon, the peloton rolled towards the Grand Place in the city centre, led by the open-roofed lead car from where race organiser Christian Prudhomme and Eddy Merckx waved to the crowds. Once again, the "Eddy, Eddy, Eddy" cheers rolled through the crowd on the square. The duo was joined for the official start by King Philippe, Prince Albert of Monaco, the minister-president of the Brussels-Capital region Rudi Vervoort and Brussels mayor Philippe Close, and the national anthems of Belgium and France were sung by a children's choir.
Van Avermaet was joined by former Tour de France winners Geraint Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali and all the national road race champions on the front row of the peloton to shake hands with the honourable guests, and at 12:25pm, the race got under way.
Van Avermaet profited from his front-row position to sneak into the first breakaway of the day and take maximum points on the first climb of the day, the Muur in Geraardsbergen, which earned him the polka-dot jersey at the end of the stage. The famous climb was packed with fans, just as most of the roads were along the 194.5km-long opening stage.
Afterwards, Van Avermaet explained that as soon as the stage course was presented and he discovered that the Muur would decide the first 'king of the mountains' jersey, he dreamed of taking it.
"I figured it would be nice if a Belgian rider could be first to crest the top, and even nicer if it was me," Van Avermaet said after the race. "I had the benefit that I was allowed to shake hands with King Philippe, which allowed me to stand at the front. Otherwise, it would've been much harder.
"I think the jersey looks nice, but I'm not going to defend it. The next goal is to win a stage," he said.
Ahead of the race, Van Avermaet had kept his ambitions quiet, even though he was asked about it multiple times.
"I was constantly asked about the opportunity, but I kept denying that I was interested. I didn't want to talk about it because everybody takes on that news and then a few more riders would be interested, which I didn't want. I had to stay calm," he explained.
On Sunday, the city will likely attract huge crowds again when the stage 2 of the Tour is contested on the streets of Brussels with a team time trial.
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