Cycling prepares for 100th Tour de France

Paris: Cycling`s greatest race, the Tour de France, begins on Saturday, hoping to cast off the recent cloud of suspicion and scandal of doping with a celebration of its historic 100th edition.

A total of 198 riders from 22 teams will line up for the 212-kilometre (132-mile) first stage from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

Three weeks, 3,403.5 kilometres and 20 stages later, only the very best -- and most fortunate -- will finish.

Last year`s runner-up behind Britain`s Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, is favourite to win the race after successes in Oman, the Criterium International, Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine.

But the 28-year-old Team Sky rider is likely to face stiff competition from 2007 and 2009 Tour winner Alberto Contador of Spain, despite his lack of victories this season.

Challenging both men include Spain`s Joaquim Rodriguez, who was runner-up in the Giro d`Italia in May, and Australian outsider Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner, who could become the Tour`s oldest victor at 36.

This year`s race is the first to be held after the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, which sent shockwaves through cycling and the world of sport.

The US rider, who was unmasked as a serial drug cheat in a devastating US Anti-Doping Agency report last year, was subsequently stripped of his record seven Tour wins between 1999 and 2005.

Race organisers have refused to nominate a winner in his place, as cycling was plunged into a period of deep introspection about the extent of drug use in the peloton in the 1990s and 2000s.

The spectre still looms large over the Tour, after the 1997 winner and three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany admitted doping last weekend -- and said it was widespread.

There have also been accusations that French star Laurent Jalabert used the banned blood booster erythropoetin (EPO) during the scandal-hit 1998 Tour, forcing him to step down as a radio and television pundit.

Lingering questions remain, too, over the International Cycling Union (UCI) and its role in the Armstrong affair, amid claims of complicity and cover-up in his activities.

The embattled UCI president Pat McQuaid is facing a challenge for his re-election, amid repeated calls for him to stand down.

Tour organisers and today`s riders, however, maintain that doping is largely a problem of the past, despite two high-profile positive tests for EPO use on the recent Tour of Italy.

"Doping is the enemy, not the Tour, or cycling," said Tour director Christian Prudhomme. "Cycling in 2013 is not the same as in the Armstrong years."

As such, the Tour intends to mark its 100th running, with celebrations and commemorations of the race that first began in 1903 with just 60 riders and only six, mammoth stages.

The peloton will pass major tourist landmarks, including scenic Corsica for the first time, to UNESCO World Heritage Site Mont Saint-Michel in northern Normandy, the Pyrenees and the Alps, where there is a double, energy-sapping climb of the infamous Alpe d`Huez.

The race ends on July 21 in a first ever twilight finish on the sweeping Champs Elysees boulevard, with landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower lit up high above the surviving pack.

Prudhomme said that support and enthusiasm was still strong for the gruelling annual race that has become a symbol of France itself.

"Not for one second has there been any sign of public disaffection. On the contrary, we see a phenomenal passion in the French regions and abroad," he told AFP in an interview this week. "On my recent trips to Australia, England, Belgium and the Netherlands, I have witnessed a real enthusiasm for the Tour."

Prudhomme is looking to capitalise on that apparent popularity by starting the race in coming years in Italy, with delegates from the northern English county of Yorkshire -- the hosts of next year`s "Grand Depart" -- observers for Saturday`s start.