Join a high-tech, human 'Tour'

Here's why you should watch the most grueling athletic event ever devised

Imagine running a marathon. Tiring, no? Imagine running a marathon, going to bed, getting up in the morning, and running another one. Still going?

Now imagine running a marathon, going to bed, getting up in the morning and running another one, then going to bed, getting up in the morning, and running another one. Now do that for three weeks straight.

That's pretty much what it's like to ride the 2,088 miles in this year's Tour de France bicycle race. And watching a couple of hundred guys - 21 teams of nine members each - try to keep that up is a big part of the fun. The Tour is surely the most grueling test of endurance ever designed for any sport.

The mountainous sections of the Tour are easily the most exciting: The best riders will race up slopes that would force you or me to get off our bikes and walk. They go uphill faster than we can pedal on level ground - and then speed downhill at 50 miles per hour!

If all goes according to plan, you'll see the US Postal team, called "the blue train" because of its uniforms, "pull" five-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong halfway up a mountain in its slipstream. Then watch as he breaks away from the pack and powers past anyone ahead of him to reach the summit first.

Armstrong is favored to win the Tour again this year, for a record sixth time in a row. But it's going to be close, and that's another thing that will keep me glued to the race: The winner probably won't be decided until the very end. Last year, after three weeks and 84 hours, 41 minutes and 12 seconds in the saddle, Lance won by 61 seconds.

But there's more to it than that, because the Tour de France is more than just one race. Sure, the big story is who is wearing the yellow jersey (that's the racer who is in the overall lead). But there are races within the race - among the sprinters, for example, who strive to win points on special courses. There's the competition among the mountain climbers to see who gets to the top of the pass first.

Three weeks is enough time for individual stories to unfold, too. Last year, for example, American rider Tyler Hamilton broke his collarbone in a crash on the first day. But he kept going and came in fourth out of 189 riders who started the Tour. (Only 147 finished.) It's inspiring to see that kind of courage.

The best way to watch the Tour is on TV. It's fun to be by the roadside for a day, but the riders go by so fast - they're a blur of whirling pedals - that the excitement lasts about 45 seconds. TV commentators explain who's ahead, what just happened, which tactics are being used, and so on. In the United States, the Outdoor Life Network is giving it lots of coverage. And if your parents complain that you're watching too much TV, tell them it's educational: There is no better way to learn French geography.

The author is the Monitor's Paris-based Europe correspondent.

A brief history

The world's premier cycling event began as a publicity stunt for a French sports newspaper. Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto, felt his publication needed a higher public profile. (He had just lost a lawsuit with a rival paper.) Bicycle racing was popular. How about a grand cross-country bike race?

Desgrange announced the race in January 1903, but response was poor. By the May 31 deadline only 15 riders had signed up for the 1,500-mile race. Desgrange postponed the race until July 1. Then he offered to pay the first 50 riders 5 francs a day for expenses and raised the prize money to 20,000 francs.

Sixty riders entered, and the race was a huge success. Winner Maurice Garin entered Paris to the cheers of 20,000 fans - who had paid an entrance fee for the privilege. A special issue of L'Auto sold 130,000 copies, 100,000 more than the newspaper's circulation just six months earlier. Desgrange was onto something.

After the huge popularity of the first race, riders were eager to win the second one. So eager, in fact, that some resorted to traveling by car and taking the train. Spectators supporting particular riders threw nails in front of competitors' bikes. Tough new regulations were put in place for the third race.

And so the Tour de France has continued, except during wartime, until the present day. The route varies from year to year and often ventures outside of France. You must have heard by now that only five men have won the race five times. American Lance Armstrong is trying for a historic sixth win this year.

As of press time Monday, Armstrong was in sixth place overall. He's expected to shine in the mountain stages to come.

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