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Cycling's enduring Tour de force

On the Tour de France's centennial, fans turn out in droves to follow one of the closest races in a decade.

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The traffic signs on the steep mountain road, leading to this sleepy Pyrenean hamlet, warn motorists of two hazards: switchbacks and cows.

Soon after dawn on Sunday, however, a more unusual danger crowded the route: thousands of people tramping up the slope, loaded with picnic gear, seeking out a shady spot from which to view the biggest annual sports event in the world.

The Tour de France was coming, transforming a back road through forgotten villages into the backdrop for a competition watched by nearly one billion television viewers worldwide.

One hundred years after the Tour de France was launched as a stunt to boost a newspaper's circulation, the race has become part of France's national heritage, up there with the Eiffel Tower. And for three weeks each July, the traveling circus brings out millions to join the party all around the country. This year, fans are especially eager for a prime vantage point to follow one of the closest, most unpredictable races in a decade.

On the flat, the Tour is little more than "two minutes of lurid Lycra," in the words of British novelist JulianBarnes. But on mountainsides as steep as 12 percent, spectators crowd the roadside to get close to riders testing the limits of human endurance.

And for other pleasures. "We've come for the holiday atmosphere and a chance to taste some local specialties" in a region famed for its gastronomy, saysPaul Jalade, a retired hospital worker who arrived here in his camper on Saturday morning, 30 hours before the race, to ensure a parking spot.

"The Super Bowl is just for football fans, this is a huge international party," says Tristen Hall, who came from New Hampshire to watch her third Tour. "Just sitting next to people and interacting with them is the best part."

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