STARTING tomorrow, the world's premier soccer event will have some competition - in Europe, anyway - from the world's premier bicycle race.
The three-week, 2,467-mile Tour de France will include a trip through the Chunnel for two races in England, a race through Normandy to commemorate the D-Day invasion, a send-off from Euro Disney - and iron man Miguel Indurain, the modest Spaniard who has dominated the race since 1991.
The 81st Tour begins in Lille and ends 21 ``stages'' (races) later, down the traditional home stretch: the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Among the stages will be races across fairly flat country (the longest is 165 miles), the first foray into Britain since 1974, and six very tough days in the mountains. One stage runs through the Alps and finishes at the Alpe d'Huez in a series of 21 turns - each named after a Tour de France champion. Dutch cycling fans have been known to crowd this route, camping out overnight to get the best viewing spots.
Stage winners wear the maillot vert (green jersey) for a day. The cyclist with the best cumulative time gets the coveted maillot jaune (yellow jersey).
Yellow has been Indurain's color on the Tour of late. This year he will attempt to join Jacques Anquetil of France (1961-64) and Belgium's Eddy Merckx (1969-72) as only the third cyclist to win four consecutive Tours. He will surely be challenged by Switzerland's Tony Rominger, recently named the world's No. 1 bicycle racer.
Rominger and Indurain (now No. 2) are the favorites among the 189 racers riding in 21 multinational teams.
The Tour attracts millions of spectators, who line the route to watch the racers flash past, followed by their support vehicles, police escorts, media cars, and publicity vans with loudspeakers blaring.
The route varies year to year, sometimes dipping extensively into surrounding countries, sometimes wholly contained within France, as it was when it was conceived in 1903 - as a publicity stunt for a sports magazine.
Since 1984, the all-male tour has been followed by a shorter race for women.