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Tour de France: Sporting fact or doping fiction?

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 4:57pm  ET

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 22-23 - FILE - In this May 20, 2010 file photo, Lance Armstrong bleeds from a cut under his left eye after crashing during the fifth stage of the Tour of California cycling race in the outskirts of Visalia, Calif. The Tour de France, which starts next Saturday, June 29, 2013, remains a fantastic idea, not old even as it is put into practice for the 100th time. Asking riders to pedal around Western Europe's largest country and up and down some of its tallest mountains for three weeks is zany and whimsical enough to always be interesting. But is the Tour still worth taking seriously as a sports event? (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) -- Ahead of its 100th running starting next Saturday, the Tour de France remains a fantastic idea. Asking riders to pedal around Western Europe's largest country and up and down some of its tallest mountains for three weeks is still zany and whimsical enough to be interesting.

But is the Tour still worth taking seriously as a sports event?

The fall of Lance Armstrong in the past year, along with other dopers who ruined the credibility of cycling and its showcase race, has opened that question to debate like never before.

From the outset in 1903, when journalist Geo Lefevre and his editor Henri Desgrange, hatched the idea of an endurance race around France to boost sales of their newspaper, L'Auto, the Tour has always been part-publicity stunt, part-genuine sporting contest.

Then, as now, it sucked in spectators with the theater both gruesome and inspiring of men made to suffer on bicycles.

And even now, at the sport's nadir, the Tour's essential charms to fans and sponsors remain the same: roads, mountains, the beauty of France and men willing to push themselves to extremes.

The timing alone -- in July when much of France is either vacationing or thinking about it -- makes it more than likely that the Tour will be still be around for its 200th edition.

The competition is always colorful if not always believable, a fun excuse for sleepy villages to come alive and a free summer spectacle for holiday-makers. The millions of people who line the route largely don't seem to care how many riders are pumped up on banned drugs and blood transfusions. Just as long as they see the spandex-clad racers zoom by and get a good picnic spot and freebies from sponsors, whose floats precede the riders, tossing out sweets, cheap sunhats and bite-size packs of cured sausage. Tour spectators, surveys suggest, make a day of it, often coming in groups and spending six or more hours by the side of the road.

Their presence and media coverage in a month when other sports, including soccer, are largely dormant means the Tour remains worthwhile for sponsors, which argues for it continuing to hold a special place in athletic calendar.

French lottery and gaming operator La Fran
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