PARIS — That little bike race devised to save a failing paper at a time of great national anguish sets off from the Inn at Montergon today, yet again. But now, 100 years later, Le Tour symbolizes every glory of France.
That the favorite is a Texan seeking a fifth consecutive victory bothers few Frenchmen. For most, the race itself is a triumph, the world's toughest sports event against an unfolding backdrop of natural beauty.
If Lance Armstrong succeeds, he will be the third foreigner with five Tour de France victories. Bernard Hinault, who won his fifth race in 1985, was the last Frenchman to finish first.
No matter. Perhaps half the nation will follow the pack of 198 riders by television. Millions more will watch up close from roadside positions staked out days in advance or from rooftops and trees.
"The Tour means everything to this country, it runs deep into the national fabric," said Samuel Abt of the International Herald Tribune, covering his 27th race. "And it is gorgeous to watch."
In the southern city of Draguignan, where the pack passed in 2000, Romuald Angibaud assembled kids' two-wheelers as well as $5,000 all-terrain bikes for the usual post-Tour rush at his shop, Banana Bikes.
"We sell out every year," he said. "You can't imagine how much this race means to us. If Armstrong wins, of course Frenchmen will cheer. That's the whole point. The race is apolitical, universal."
At newsstands, Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir "Living History" gathered dust behind the counter, while Tour de France specials published by the sports daily L'Equipe flew out the door.
The race began, if indirectly, because of l'Affaire Dreyfus, a virulent national controversy over whether a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, had sold secrets to the enemy.
Along with Emile Zola, who wrote "J'Accuse," Dreyfus' defenders included the editor of a popular cycling magazine. Anti-Dreyfus stalwarts started a rival publication to drive it out of business.
Henri Desgrange, editor of the new magazine, L'Auto, organized the Tour de France with hopes it would stitch together a disparate nation.
"To do as much good as possible and see our most far-flung friends, those are the two ideas that give birth to today's race," Desgrange said.
Few people saw 60 riders leave the Reveil Matin cafe at Montergon near Paris in 1903. The first stage to Lyon was 280 miles, 18 hours on solid steel bikes with no gears, much of it on dirt roads in the dark.
The next year, scandal that is still shrouded in mystery disqualified the first four winners. Desgrange declared the Tour de France finished, "a victim of its own success."
In fact, it was held another 87 times, however, halted only between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 when France took time out for world wars on its soil.
The 2003 race, attuned to space-age technology and big money, is 2,016 miles long, with 20 stages taking the 22 nine-man teams up 21 mountain peaks.
Race organizers pay the winner about $480,000. If that happens to be Armstrong, his yearly earnings and bonuses could top $16 million. Most riders will barely make France's minimum wage, about $24,000.
These days, teams count on such varied sponsors as banks, bicycle makers, national lotteries, a brioche bakery and, in Armstrong's case, the U.S. Postal Service.
A motorized village of 5,000 precedes the pack, arranging for everything from meals to massages. Technical and medical care are close by. "Sweep-up cars," actually vans with signature brooms hitched to the rear, give a lift to any drop-outs.
It was different in the early days when riders didn't change clothes and had to repair their own bikes.
The first all-night hauls up steep mountains were so tough that Octave Lapize, the 1910 champion, muttered from his saddle to a passing race official: "You are all murderers."
Eugene Christophe, "Cri-Cri," never won but often dominated. In 1919, he led on Mount Tourmalet when his front fork broke. He walked nine miles, fixed his bike at a village forge and finished the race.
Great duels were fought, like the running battle between Italians Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Each won twice. But Bartali's wins were in 1938 and 1948. Who knows what he would have done without the war?
The Tour was nearly finished by a doping scandal in 1998. The French Festina team was disqualified and many cyclists rode slow to protest zealous police who burst into their rooms for spot tests.
Five years later, the pall still hovers. In opening remarks, Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc warned that the fight against drugs can never be a total success.
Only five to 10% of riders never consider drugs, he said, and another five to 10% will try to use them, no matter what.
"If all the measures put in place since 1998 encourage the 80 to 90% to seek the right road, or at least avoid the wrong road, we can say we've accomplished a good part of our mission," he said.
A century ago, few people thought about security.
Even in recent races, crowds surge past barriers to splash water on overheated riders and to shout encouragement up close. These days, with heightened terrorist concerns, police are on edge.
In the final minutes, however, neither past nor future will matter much. As what is left of the pack finally streaks down the Champs-Elys-Dees, a screaming France will be on its feet.