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Sports 101

It's been a rough ride for the Tour de France. Over the past year, drug raids, team suspensions, and ongoing investigations have spoiled cycling's premier event.

But as 180 cyclists on 20 teams compete in the 86th edition of the tour, which began last Saturday in Le Puy Du Fou, cyclists and organizers are trying to put the focus back on the race.

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"It's obviously been a long year for cycling. As far as I'm concerned, it's history," says Lance Armstrong, team leader of a United States team sponsored by the US Postal Service. "The Tour de France is the greatest race in the world and the greatest race in the United States, too."

Q: How does this year's course differ from years past?

A: The 20-stage race is about 200 kilometers (124 miles) shorter than last year and less grueling. It also includes an extra rest day.

Q: When does the three-week race end?

A: The 3,680 kilometers (2,286 mile) race ends with its traditional ride down the Champs-lyses in Paris July 25.

Q: Which country has the most wins?

A: France is the first with 36, Belgium comes second with 18. The United States has three wins, all from Greg LeMond, who won in 1986, 1989, and 1990.

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Q: What is the course like?

A: It begins with relatively flat stages in the western part of the country before heading north and then east to Luxembourg. By the second week, the cyclists head for the Alps, then ride west to the Pyrenees. The race then flattens out again in Paris.

Q: Who will not be competing this year?

A: Last year's champion, Marco Pantani of Italy, was expelled from the Tour of Italy after he failed a blood test. He decided not to enter the Tour de France. Others not competing include previous winners Jan Ullrich of Germany and Bjarne Riiis of Denmark, because of injuries.

Q: Who is the favorite on the US team?

A: Armstrong, a two-time Olympic cyclist from Austin, Texas. He is the first American since Greg LeMond to wear the yellow jersey (win a stage of the race).

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