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Convicts trade prison bars for handle bars

A PACK of French convicts are cycling the inaugural "Penitentiary Tour de France," a two-week, 2,200 kilometer trek across the French countryside.

It's not a competition, prison officials say - the "breakaways" and "escapes" of the better known Tour de France are strictly forbidden - but rather an exercise in commitment, solidarity and grit.

The convicts, some 200 in total, are accompanied by jailers, police escorts and support vehicles in their journey through the vineyards of Provence, the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, and the majestic spires of the Alps.

"It's a beautiful gift they're giving me," said Olivier, an inmate at a prison in Montmedy, near Luxembourg.

"It's the icing on the cake," he said. He is due for release two months from now. "It brings a close to my situation perfectly, spot-on."

Officials chose participants from across France, prisoners with terms as short as two years and as long as 25, petty crooks and hardened criminals, men and women, young and old. The goal of the journey that began last Thursday, organizers say, is to challenge them, spark their ambition, inspire a sense of self-respect and pride.

"Why a Tour de France?" asked Francois Grosvalet, director of athletic programs for France's prisons. "Because in the history of French sporting events, the Tour de France is something that finds itself very close to the summit."

The event is no small undertaking. Its 15 stages average 150 kilometers in length, some stretching to over 220 and starts and finishes were selected for their proximity to prisons so the tour could pick up additional riders.

"Believe me: you can't just do it like that, 200 kilometers on a bike," said Grosvalet. And that's part of the point, he said. "It's a huge first. It's an absolute innovation to take the risk - but which is a calculated risk - of sending out so many prisoners at the same time and for so long, and to expose them in such a deliberate way to the eyes of French society."

The prison peloton has rolled through country villages and hamlets to applause. Cheering crowds have massed under the arches at each stage's finish line.

"Prison cycling," as officials have taken to calling it, has captured the hearts of the French.


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