Le Tour de France - on eight wheels

A TOUR de France with no doping scandals, no expelled competitors, no corruption and no controversy? This version is being performed on eight wheels, not two.

The 1999 Rollerblade Tour de France begins at one o'clock today at the Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris. About 50 competitors will get their skates on, and set off on a six-week tour of the country.

The 5500km circuit takes them via the Belgian, German, Swiss, Italian and Spanish borders and along the Atlantic coastline, ending back in Paris on 8 August.

The "Tour de France Roller" is the brainchild of 30-year-old Samir Zemmouchi. He had the idea in 1990, but, he says, "For the first four years people took me for a madman, a bloody fool."

He finally managed to stage the first tour in 1994 but this year's event is set to be the biggest yet, with more publicity, more competitors and more financial support. "I wanted to give the Rollerbladers a focus, to give them an opportunity to make something of themselves, to take the initiative," he said.

In-line skating is already popular in France. Any visitor to Paris in the past year will have noticed the skaters swerving among the pedestrians on the Champs Elysees. Every Friday night police shut off streets in Paris for an in-line skating extravaganza through the city. An estimated one in 10 French people practise the sport and France is ranked second in international competitions.

Mr Zemmouchi thinks the appeal easy to account for. "Firstly it's an inexpensive hobby, and so a whole range of people from all backgrounds can get together and enjoy themselves, keep fit, and be environmentally friendly too".

The competitors for this year's event are all under the age of 30 and come from every corner of France, as well as Germany, America, Colombia, Bulgaria and Guadeloupe.

Some have been in-line skating for years; others are relative newcomers. Pierre Touvet, 26, a participant in last year's competition, charted his rise. "When I was a kid, I had a pair of rollerskates, the sort you clip on to your shoes. But it was only in 1997 that I started seriously Rollerblading. That's one of the good things about the sport: you improve quickly."

The tour has been divided into 20 stages. The most difficult will be the 16km uphill stretch in the Pyrenees, which ends at the ski station Plateau de Beille. There is also a descent through the Alps. The athletes wear helmets and protective pads for their knees, wrists and elbows. The winner of each stage wears the yellow jersey for the subsequent section - just as in the two-wheel original - and there will be modest prizes for individual and team winners.

Winning is not the prime aim, explained Mr Touvet. "The friendship that develops between us during the tour is really the most important thing when you are living and working with people 24 hours a day." The lack of a competitive spirit is emphasised by the fact that the contestants skate together in their teams, and are allowed to break only in the last five kilometres.

Mr Touvet believes this is a positive rule. "There is no incentive for us to dope ourselves up to win. The only thing that boosts our performances is the encouragement and applause of the crowd."

"Tour de France Roller" is not just about athletic prowess; the organisers also want to promote the sport. At each town of departure and arrival, a group of 25 acrobatic in-line skaters will put on a two-hour interactive show for public. These displays will involve slalom courses, jumping cars and ramps and in-line skating dance routines. "We want to liven up the towns we visit," explained the 22-year-old show co-ordinator Lise Le Hen.

Members of the public with in-line skating experience will be able to participate in a mini-marathon. There will also be free skate hire and lessons for those who wish to try the sport for the first time. In the words of its founder, "Tour de France Roller 1999 will be one big human adventure through sport."