TOUR DE FRANCE BIKE RACE RETURNS TO ITS ROOTS

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This year, the Tour de France comes home. After a 1992 race that took in seven countries, this year's edition (it begins tomorrow) will be just what its name suggests: a tour of the country where it was born 90 years ago. The two exceptions: a day of rest in the tiny country of Andorra and a brief jaunt into Spain.

``Last year the idea was to mark the arrival of the European Single Market,'' says Tour spokesman Philippe Sudres. ``But this year we return to the 'musts' that really make the Tour what it is: stages in the Alps, stages in the Pyrenees, and the grand finale on the Champs Elysees.'' The big disappointment for many fans last year was the absence of the Pyrenees from the three-week race.

The 3,800-km (2,375-mile) race will be run by 20 teams - two fewer than in previous years. The drop reflects the declining number of professional cycling teams worldwide, but also a ``deliberate choice,'' says Mr. Sudres, to restore some of the race's intimacy.

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``The sentiment was building that the Tour de France was getting too big,'' Sudres says. ``There were too many riders, too many sponsors, too many journalists. It was always bigger, bigger,'' he says, ``but the [country] roads are not any wider than before.''

The Tour will be followed on TV around the world, including 80 hours of live broadcasts in France, coverage by ESPN, and a program of highlights on CBS (July 25, 4:30-6 p.m., E.T.). United States cycling enthusiasts will be disappointed, however, by the absence of three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond for health reasons.

As much as Lemond will be missed, Sudres notes there are other ``rising Americans'' coming along. Among them: Texas newcomer Lance Armstrong, a Motorola team member who has done well in recent events and will participate in his first Tour this year.

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