It's the Tour de France without the dope testing. In a desperate attempt to restore the flagging fortunes of the sport of pigeon racing, the elite birds of France embarked on their own 13-stage race around France this week.
The first pigeons set off on Monday from Lille to Fresne-le-Plan for the 12-day race, with stages of up to 125 miles. The route takes the pigeons in a rough hexagonal shape around France. Since pigeon racing works on the principle that the pigeons will always find their way home, each stage must be taken by a different team of pigeons.
"People hear the word pigeon and they thing of something filthy that gets in the way in the road and makes everything dirty," said Sandra Wambre, a race official. "But homing pigeons are athletes; they're much more robust and muscular."
The main cycling Tour de France begins on Saturday covering much longer distances – although at a slower pace than the 110mph speeds of the top birds.
Pigeon fanciers offer a variety of explanations for the downturn in interest in their sport. Some put it down to increases in the cost of living; others say people just don't have the time.