Cycling: Prutour proves a big draw

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THE PRUTOUR in May will be shorter by two days than the inaugural nine-day race last year, but it will be tougher than ever, the organisers warned when the route was unveiled in London yesterday.

With around pounds 100,000 in prize money on offer, the Prutour claims to be the world's fourth-richest race, and the itinerary ensures that the riders will earn every penny. The 1,178-kilometre (732-mile) race has been upgraded by the world governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, who have also increased its allocation of world ranking points. Under UCI rules the duration has had to be reduced to seven days because of the Prutour's enhanced status, but it should draw class opposition from Europe, making the racing harder.

Three of the 18-team places have been filled already by high-quality squads. Chris Boardman and his Australian team-mate, Stuart O'Grady, who were respectively second and first last year, return with their French team Credit Agricole.

US Postal Service, whose riders include Lance Armstrong, who recently won his fight against cancer, will be out to improve on their team victory last May.

With the inclusion of the Dutch team Rabobank, the challenge to any British hopes could be awesome, given the European racers' more intensive programme.

The Prutour opens with a race around the Thames Embankment and Whitehall on 23 May, and ends with another circuit race in Princes Street, Edinburgh, on 29 May.

In between lies some exacting racing, with the Bristol to Swansea leg on day four described by the race director, Alan Rushton, as "the hardest we have ever had. This will be one of the toughest races ever held in this country."

On British hopes for success, Boardman said: "Despite the overall strength in depth of this year's race, we will come with the same approach as last year."

1999 PRUTOUR SCHEDULE: 23 May Westminster circuit race; 24 May Medway to Portsmouth and Portsmouth time-trial; 25 May Winchester to Bristol. 26 May Bristol to Swansea; 27 May Swansea to Birmingham; 28 May Liverpool- Blackpool; 29 May Carlisle to Edinburgh and Edinburgh circuit race.