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Island of Corsica eager to host opening stage of Tour de France

Radioshack-Leopard team riders cycle during a training session for the centenary Tour de France cycling race in Porto-Vecchio, June 28, 2013 on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. The race will start on June 29 with a 213km stage from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia.

BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS

Watch out for the pigs, Ryder.

Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal is developing an unfortunate track record for crashing out of major races. He left the Tour de Suisse this month after clipping wheels with another cyclist and abandoned last year's Tour de France after being caught in a massive pile-up.

As Hesjedal returns to France's biggest race, the 100th edition of which starts Saturday in Corsica, he'll have another hazard to worry about.

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A regular feature of the Tour is the well-refreshed spectators who crowd in on the riders. Organizers for the race, which is run over thousands of kilometres of public roads, could never afford to cordon off the route completely and the odd sheep also turns up. But the number of animals roaming Corsica sets it apart.

Livestock wander freely here on the rugged island. Amateur cyclists whipping down the narrow twisting descents regularly risk encountering loose animals, particularly groups of boars. The racers will have to hope that the caravan that precedes them over the course scares them far away.

The animals are just one sign of how far from Paris the Tour is starting. Although this is the first time in a decade that the race is not visiting a foreign country, Corsica, which is having its Tour debut, is a reasonable stand-in.

Part of France since the late 18th-century – and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte -- Corsica doesn't always feel particularly French. The island has strong Italian ties and a local separatist movement that likes to paint out the French names on bilingual street signs. Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu bombings are now fairly rare but their tag is painted everywhere.

There is no prologue and the Tour's first stage Saturday is flat, offering a chance for the sprinters. Count on Briton Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile, taking a stab at securing first rights to the yellow jersey. The route loops from Porto-Vecchio south to Bonifacio, across a narrow strait from Sardinia, and then right up the eastern side of the island.

The second stage, diagonally across the island from Bastia down to Ajaccio, is much hillier and some sprinters are likely to struggle. It's far too early for the overall contenders to make a move so expect lower-profile riders or smaller teams to try to make their mark Sunday. Bigger names like Hesjedal will probably sit back and concentrate on finishing safely, within striking distance of each other.

Stage three takes the racers up the western side of the island, finishing in the fortress town of Calvi. Billed by Tour organizers as having "not a single metre of flat," Monday's route will punish the sprinters as the pack tackles the sharp climbs of the coast road. Watch for the beautiful but tricky descent from Piana – a UNESCO-listed area where the narrow road cuts between soaring rock faces and vertiginous drop-offs.

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The first visit to Corsica by the Tour is a big deal on the island. French towns compete for the right to host race stages and pay for the privilege. The potential for publicity and spillover business is hotly desired.

"Non, malheuresement," a restaurant waiter in Ghisoni said earlier this month, when asked if the Tour would come through the village. In a small town only a few kilometres away, the road was freshly paved and the banners were already strung, ready for the racers to fly by on Sunday's stage.

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