WHEN the Tour de France was launched in 1903, nobody could have predicted it would become one of the world's most exciting and dramatic sports events. It was already a significant race of 1,500 miles. But it was all French, had only six stages (days of racing), and relatively low-class bicycles. But how things have changed. Despite having to be eliminated for 11 years by two world wars in its 88 years of history, it has become an international event, having an enormous impact on bicycle racing around theworld, including the United States. When I moved to Paris in 1968, one of my major frustrations of living abroad was to be cut off from American sports like football and baseball, which had become part of my life. In those days, these American sports were not even televised abroad. So I turned to European sports to see if I could find a substitute that would excite me. At first it was rugby that attracted me the most. But in the summer of 1969, I suddenly got hooked on the Tour de France. The race, now 2,500 miles long, lasted almost four weeks. And the dramatic climbing of the Alps was the one of most courageous and harrowing experiences for any cyclist in the world. One of the things that fascinated me about the Tour was that it was not at all just an individual effort. Even a great rider like Belgian Eddie Merckx, who won the race five times, could not win without the strong support of the team he was linked to. These team members had to make sure that potentially dangerous opponents did run away from the pack, giving them a chance to gain insurmountable leads. What single sports event in the world lasts four weeks? What single sports event in the world produces an in-person audience of 15 million or more? What single sports event needs some 7,000 men and women to run the operation and cover it for the press and television? Only the Tour de France. On July 28, the cyclists roared up the Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris to finish the 77th race, and more than 2 million people in the streets of the French capital cheered on the fourth Spaniard in history, Migurl Indurain, to win the Tour. People ask me why the French are so crazed about the Tour. First, it takes place in their country. But more important is that since 1903, a French cyclist has won almost half the tours. The French have not been very successful in world sports. The French are strong in rugby and fencing and have had years of strength in soccer. But for years they dominated the Tour de France. And slowly but surely it became not only a French sporting event, but a world sporting event as well. Today, if you are a cyclist trying to achieve a global reputation, winning the Tour de France is at the top of the list, despite the fact that a number of other major events like the Tour of Italy and the Tour of Spain have been formed. The Anglo-Saxon penetration into the Tour de France did not begin until 1937, when two British cyclists signed up for the race. Americans were far behind. It was not until 1981 that an American placed among the first 50 finishers of the race. But three years later, an American turned up who would dramatically change the relationship between the Tour de France and the United States - a man who would bring the power of the Tour de France across the Atlantic and get the US more and more involved in bicycle racing. His name was Greg LeMond. In 1984, Mr. LeMond not only showed up, he placed higher than any American in the history of the race - third place. He m oved to second in 1985 and became the first American to win the race in 1986. Each year's Tour de France is different. That is one of the reasons it is an exceptional sporting event. It has had its moments of tragedy and problems. Tom Simpson, the only British cyclist ever to win the leader's yellow jersey during a stage of the race, was killed on the Tour. A number of Tours have been blocked for hours by striking Frenchmen. And there have been, from time to time, drug problems. But the race goes on. And when it ended last Sunday, I started looking forward to early July 1992, when the Tour de France would start again.