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A French rite of summer begins

In this village as in virtually all of France's hamlets and cities, today is a big day, the beginning of two annual rituals, oddly linked by their connection to the country's highways and byways.

One is the first installment of what the natives call le grand depart, or the great getaway, when it seems every car in the country starts a tour of France, heading toward mountains or seashore for a month's vacation.

The other is the first day of what the French call le grand boucle, or the great circle route, the Tour de France bicycle race.

The apparent madness of these traditions _ having much of a country leave for vacation the same day, having 189 cyclists cover 2,193 miles in 20 stages and a prologue over 23 days _ is what has made each a unique part of French culture.

This year's Tour de France, the 82nd, may be unique in its own right. Should Miguel Indurain of Spain win, he would match the record five victories of Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil and Belgian Eddy Merckx. But Indurain would be the first to win five straight.

Asked recently whether that would make him a cycling legend, Indurain replied, "That already has happened. Just to win one Tour de France is a big, big accomplishment."

Such a response is the closest Indurain would come to boasting of his accomplishments. In fact, it probably was meant less to celebrate himself than to honor everyone else who has won the Tour.

Sharing the spoils would be more in character for Indurain, whose 31st birthday comes July 16, during the Tour's 14th stage. Or, at least it would fit the small piece of his character Indurain has allowed the world to see, which is that of a modest, gracious, serious man, married with no children.

Those traits are evident in the way Indurain has won his four Tour victories, each by a bigger margin than the last, a margin built largely through his performances in the individual time trial stages.

While some have criticized his failure to attack once in the lead, many see it as a form of noblesse oblige.

"Miguel could probably cannibalize the race," three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond said. "He probably isn't even maximizing his potential."