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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Tamara Keith. France may have been knocked out of the World Cup yesterday by Germany, but there is a mighty fine distraction from any lingering sadness. The Tour de France starts today. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, the world's ultimate cycling race brings an excitement all it's own.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Last year, the Tour de France celebrated its 100th anniversary. A spectacular sound and light show lit up the Arc de Triomphe at the closing ceremony. It might be hard to duplicate that kind of enthusiasm this year, especially with competition from the World Cup down in Brazil. But the 2014 Tour will be special, too, says Matthieu Barberousse, journalist with L'Equipe Sports Newspaper.

MATTHIEU BARBEROUSSE: Tour de France is, in ways, a kind of combination between tradition and unity, and the organizer always try to put some history.

BEARDSLEY: This year, the tour will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. Several stages will roll through the farmland of northern France former battlefields where the land is still pockmarked by the trenches that one lined the Western front. The 1914 tour was the last before a five-year suspension due to the war. Fifteen cyclist from that year's race were killed in the conflict - Matthieu Barberousse.

BARBEROUSSE: A lot of cyclists died in the World War I because, you know, at that time, the riders were coming from the lower social class. And they were the most exposed to the fire.

BEARDSLEY: There are 22 teams with 198 riders in this year's 101st Tour de France. The three-week race will cover nearly 2,200 miles and as has been the tradition recent years, the Tour de France will begin in a foreign country. This year it's Britain - Yorkshire to be exact. Cycling is not known as an Englishman sport, but a recent spate of superb British riders has increased the sport's popularity across the channel. And like every year, there'll be suspicions of doping, but many commentators feel a revulsion over the revelations of the Lance Armstrong era has helped to create a new generation of clean riders. Last year's Tour de France champion, Christopher Froome, believes cycling may well be one of the cleanest sports today.

CHRISTOPHER FROOME: The way the sport is now and the way the testing is, it is so, so strict. Each rider has a blood passport where almost on a monthly basis, readings are taken, and the controls we have - I mean, we have to login to an Internet site to say where we're sleeping every night so that people can come and test us.

BEARDSLEY: Sports journalist Barberousse says everyone will be looking to see if Spaniard Alberto Contador can unseat Froome this year. Last year, Contador gave Froome a run for his money on the mountain climbs.

BARBEROUSSE: Everybody will look at Alberto Contador and this year, he seems to be much better than last year. So we think there's going to be a great duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador that will last for three weeks.

BEARDSLEY: But even if you don't catch all of the tour, it's OK. The race is more than a sporting event. It's a summer time rite. People line the route with picnics. And to hear the late afternoon broadcast of the tour buzzing in cafes across France is to know that the languid days of summer and les vacanses are truly upon us. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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