Cycling: Esprit de course

France always finds reassurance in the ritual of its great bike race. But rarely more than this year

It's been a traumatic week for France, the disappointment of losing to Italy in the World Cup final paling by comparison with the anguish caused by the behaviour of its favourite sporting son, Zinedine Zidane. Against this backdrop, the Tour de France offered some comfort, its role in French national life still vital, if not quite what it was in the race's golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.

Like every Tour, the 2006 event has been a hymn to the glory of the French landscape as it has made its way from Strasbourg round to the Pyrenees via Belgium, Normandy and Brittany, with the Alps yet to come. But this year also marks a new beginning. Seven-times winner Lance Armstrong retired after his final triumph last year, and although a pre-race clear-out of more than 50 riders on suspicion of doping - including four leading contenders - cast an all-too familiar shadow over the sport, it did at least create the most open contest for nearly a decade.

The French could even dream of their first home-grown winner since the great Bernard Hinault in 1985. Sadly for them, the leader going into Bastille Day today is... an American.

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