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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 July, 2003, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Paris bids farewell to the Tour
By Matt Majendie
BBC Sport in Paris

Germany's Didi Senff gets into the spirit of the Tour
Germany's Didi Senff is a regular at every stage of the Tour
On Sunday morning, the Tour finally left Paris, making its way to the Reveil Matin in Montgeron where the race first started in 1903.

The sport may have changed massively from its inauguration when riders set out carrying any spare tyres they might need, but the support for Henri Desgranges' creation shows no signs of dying.

At Saturday's prologue, Parisians took their time to line the route.

But once the major contenders started to come out of the blocks, the crowds came out in earnest.

Partly due to the multi-national mix of supporters, riders from all nationalities were cheered with equal gusto as the Tour's PA system announced each one's arrival.

An extra special cheer was saved from the home crowd for Didier Rous, wearing the French national jersey, and countryman Richard Virenque - the French housewives' favourite.

But the biggest applause was saved for defending champion Lance Armstrong in a country supposedly brimming with anti-American and anti-Armstrong sentiment.

For all their backing, though, the crowd breathed a collected sigh of relief when the Texan failed to make it into yellow, delaying what they see as an inevitable fifth Tour win for him.

Among those watching was one who has already achieved that accolade - Belgium's Eddy Merckx.

While he was wrapped up talking to French television about Armstrong's credentials to match his achievement, Merckx's son Axel was taking the day in his stride.

Merckx Jnr is tipped by many for a mountain stage win and a place in the top 20 when the race returns to Paris in three weeks.

Belgian rider Axel Merckx, son of the legendary Eddy Merckx
Axel Merckx is hoping to carry on his family's tradition in the Tour

And he told the BBC Sport website: "The centenary makes it special for us riders.

"The major difference is there is more coverage across the world for it but the crowds and the support are as strong as ever.

"You try and block out the fact that you're part of history but you cannot help but get caught up in it a little bit."

Among those getting more caught up in it than others was arguably the Tour's most recognisable face after Armstrong - the infamous devil.

Every year Germany's Didi Senff dresses up as the devil, carries a pitch fork and cheers on the riders at every stage.

Not always popular with the riders, he is regularly pelted with discarded food and bottles from them during each stage.

But it fails to deter his archetypal cry of "allez, allez" to anyone who will listen or for that matter those who won't.

And, like Merckx, the history of the event is not lost on him.

The devil said: "A hundred years, a hundred times more fun."

On Saturday, Paris seemed to agree.

Links to more Tour de France 2003 stories





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