By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian cycling great Eddy Merckx got the 106th Tour de France under way on Saturday as thousands of fans flooded to the first Grand Depart in Brussels for 61 years.
To chants of “Eddy Eddy” from the massed ranks at the city’s majestic Grand Place, the 74-year-old sent the 176 riders on their way for the first of 21 stages, a 194km trek around the Flanders countryside.
Merckx, known in his heyday as the Cannibal for his aggressive riding style, was joined by Belgium’s King Philippe for the ceremonial duties.
It is 50 years since Brussels native Merckx won the first of his joint-record five Tour de France titles.
The opening stage took place in warm sunshine with Belgium’s Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet (CCC) part of a four-man breakaway which led the peloton by just over two minutes with 97km still remaining.
Van Avermaet will take the polka dot jersey after winning the sprint to the top of the day’s one short, but steep, climb, the Mur de Grammont.
(Story corrects spelling of Merckx’s first name to Eddy)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Lovell)