July 5, 2008 3:00 am

Jennifer Hughes: Why Le Tour de France is still great

The Tour de France, which starts today in Brest, is the third most-watched sports event in the world, after the Olympics and the World Cup.

Once a year, the three-week race offers its riders a shot at glory via hell on wheels, and its followers an experience amounting to a rolling party.

In spite of the doping scandals of recent years, reports of its death are exaggerated. Here are just a few reasons why.

1. The French They take le pique-nique , crowding the roadsides and thronging the village bars. S

chools close, villages dig out the bunting and firemen train their hoses in arcs over the sweaty riders.

There are countless cycling tours of other places, but none has the atmosphere of Le Tour.

2. The 'caravane publicitaire' When you see a giant cheese arguing with a motorist, you know you've reached Le Tour.

Carnival-style vehicles are loaded up with sponsor freebies, and sent off along the route ahead of the race.

The freebies are useless, but still you find yourself in a scrap with a 10-year-old for a key ring.

Two tips: avoid the stationary grandmother on a camping chair - she has very long arms, and no sympathy; and team up - one covers the roadside, while the other goes to the back to get goodies lobbed over kids' heads.

3. The athleticism The race covers 3,500km in three weeks. There are no drugs in the world that can make the pain go away. And there are signs, such as slower climbing speeds, and patchy performances, to suggest less doping is going on.

4. The scenery From Brittany, the race takes in the majesty of the Pyrénées and the Alps and, as always, finishes on the Champs-Élysées. On the flatter stages, look for riders passing unimpressed cows in the north, and sunflower fields in the south.

5. The mountains They're stunning and they hurt like hell to climb. They are also where the race is won and lost.

6. The crashes Search YouTube for plenty of implausible contortions of bikes and limbs.

Last year's Tour included two of the best of the no-lasting-injury variety, involving stray dogs and cartwheeling riders. Other favourites include the miraculous misjudged descents which see riders tumble down a steep gully, only to climb out and pedal off.

7. 'The dog ate my drugs' Alternatively known as "entertaining excuses when caught in possession".

Best efforts include Belgian rider Frank Vandenbroucke's claim that the dope in his fridge was for his dog.

Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas tried a variation on this, explaining, straight-faced, that the boot-load of performance enhancers in his wife's car were for her mother.

Another caught for blood doping was Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, who scotched rumours that it was his father's blood. "That's absurd." he said last year. "With his blood, I'd have tested positive for vodka."

Jennifer Hughes will be covering the Tour de France for the FT

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