The Tour de France, the world's most famous bicycle race, begins Saturday in Paris. The Tour is celebrating its centennial this year, and is expected to attract more fans than usual. They will come for the celebration, and to see if American rider Lance Armstrong can match the all-time record by winning a fifth consecutive Tour.
Lance Armstrong is the prohibitive favorite to win this year and match Spaniard Miguel Indurain's record of five consecutive victories. A win would also make Armstrong only the fifth rider to win five times. No one has ever won six.
Over the last four years, Armstrong, who rides for the U.S. Postal Service team, has had relatively easy victories, and last year he led the race from start to finish.
That is no small accomplishment, given that the Tour runs for three weeks, covers more than 4,000 kilometers, and includes exhausting hill climbs and dangerous high speed descents through the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Armstrong, whose reputation for toughness is based both on his performances and his having overcome cancer, is respected even by most French fans, who have not seen someone from their own country win the Tour for 18 years.
This year's race begins in Paris in honor of the Tour's Centennial, the 1903 race started in a Paris suburb. Over the years, the Tour has become an institution in a country with a quarter of a million bicycle racers. It attracts hundreds of thousands of fans, some of whom plan their vacations and weekends around the event.
After a clockwise trip around the country, the Tour will conclude in Paris on July 27.