Prisoners Ride In Penitentiary Tour De France

Some 200 French prisoners, closely accompanied by more than 100 cycling guards, prison sports instructors and magistrates, have set off on their own Tour de France. The 15-stage race will finish Friday in Paris.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some of the world's greatest cyclists will compete next month in the annual Tour de France. This week in France, 200 riders compete in a different race. They'll sprint and climb some 1,600 miles through 15 stages, finishing in Paris on Friday.

Tough, but those steep climbs beat staying at home for prisoners cycling in the Penitentiary Tour de France. With more than 100 guards and magistrates alongside they'll pedal past some of the most notorious prisons in the country. John Laurenson met the tour as it arrived in the northern French town of Valenciennes

JOHN LAURENSON: By the fountain in front of the municipal stateliness of Valenciennes town hall, prisoners' families have gathered to see the tour arrive.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LAURENSON: This woman, who says she'd rather not give her name, has come to see her brother-in-law. He's been in prison for four years. For what, she'd rather not say either. He's not yet allowed home at weekends, but they let him out to train for the tour, she says. And it's doing him a power of good - makes him feel more civilized than when he's locked up, she says.

(Soundbite of siren)

To an all-familiar sound for some of the riders her brother-in-law and a couple of hundred other men comes speeding around the corner in one tight group. Breakaway sprints are not allowed in this Tour de France for obvious reasons, though the organizers aren't worried about inmates pedaling to freedom, they're too close to the end of their sentences to risk it.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

This 22-year-old's got two years left to serve.

JULIAN: (Through translator) My name is Julian. I'm from Valenciennes Prison. It's a great opportunity I'm getting here, a unique experience. It's just a shame I had to go to prison first.

LAURENSON: Inside the town hall, Julian, the other prisoners, their guards and prison directors stand in their cycling gear with plastic cups of orange juice, listening to a speech by the director of the French prison service, Claude d'Harcourt.

Since the law and order hard-liner, Nicolas Sarkozy, became president two years ago, the number of inmates has risen. The prison service is being asked to do more than ever before. D'Harcourt hopes this tour can help bridge the gap between French society and its jails.

Mr. CLAUDE D'HARCOURT (Director, National Prison Administration): (Foreign language spoken)

LAURENSON: Our society needs prisons in order to function properly, but we hide them away in a cowardly way, says d'Harcourt. By tracing its path around France this tour marks out prisons as part of the human geography, part of the life of the country, he says.

The town hall reception is coming to an end and a mechanic's talking bike repairs with the director of Loos Prison, Jean Paul Chapu. The Prisoner Bike Tour is his brainchild. He says the idea is being criticized by people who don't think convicted criminals should get his much attention or have this much fun. But French law states that prisons must promote the reintegration of prisoners into everyday life, he says, and that's what this Tour de France does.

Mr. JEAN PAUL CHAPU (Director, Loos Prison): (Through translator) When a prisoner loses weight and gets in shape, he gets a better image of himself when he looks in the mirror. His family and friends, the prison authorities and future employers can see that there's something positive going on when he doesn't just lie in his cell but fixes himself a goal and sticks to it.

(Soundbite of horns honking)

LAURENSON: After the brief stop in Valenciennes, the prisoners and guards remount their bicycles. From the crowd of supporters a little girl shouts, kisses, darling Papa. A woman cries bonne route. And they're off again. As a French commentator of a poetical bent has put it, there are no chains on their bicycles.

For NPR News, I'm John Laurenson in Valenciennes.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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