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  Tour de France Starts in Ireland

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press
Saturday, July 11, 1998; 2:33 a.m. EDT

 Members of Germany's Telekom team train in streets near Dublin on Friday for the start of the '98 Tour de France.
(Peter Dejong/Associated Press)
DUBLIN, Ireland — Like tens of thousands of Irish citizens, Ken McDonald couldn't wait for France's greatest sporting spectacle to come flashing by today — in his case, right past his front door.

For others, capturing the best vantage point of the 85th Tour de France during its three-day visit to Ireland has meant camping out in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, where cyclists will climb its humble 3,000-foot summit Sunday before whizzing back into the capital.

"Nothing like this has ever been here before, and God knows when it's coming back,'' said McDonald, whose bicycle shop sits on the route of today's 3.5-mile time trial. McDonald is clearing the bikes off his shop floor for a party.

English sprint specialist Chris Boardman was the favorite to take the opener, as he has done on two previous Tours, though he complains that personal distractions have left him vulnerable to an upset.

This was the 13th time that the Tour de France has begun outside French soil since its foundation in 1903.

It came to Ireland partly because of the need to avoid a collision with soccer's World Cup, which concludes Sunday in Paris, and also as a tribute to two of the Tour's outstanding racers of the 1980s: Tipperary native Sean Kelly, who won the green jersey — the competition's marker for the most consistent cyclist — a record-setting four times, and Dublin-born Stephen Roche, who took the winner's yellow jersey in 1987.

It's not lost on the Irish that the Tour arrives with the local sport in the doldrums and not a single Irishman in the running. Boardman, from Liverpool across the Irish Sea, is the closest they have to a home favorite.

"Kelly and Roche were just outstanding people. Finding another one of them would be as hard as finding a Pele,'' McDonald said. "You can't make these people in a factory like a bike.''

Although 21 nine-member teams are taking part, this Tour was shaping up into a three-way fight among Germany's Telekom, France's Festina and Spain's Banesto.

Telekom boasts last year's winner, 24-year-old Jan Ullrich, 1996 victor Bjarne Riis, a national hero in his native Denmark, and speedster Erik Zabel.

Festina's best hope lies in a Swiss cyclist, Alex Zuelle, a strong all-rounder who is seeking redemption after his failure to hold an early lead in this year's Tour of Italy.

Festina also possesses in Richard Verinque the undisputed No. 1 mountain-climber. But this year's route — though it dips into the Pyrenees starting July 21 and the Alps six days later — is considered to have too few steep sections to give Verinque the edge he needs.

Spain is still waiting for Banesto's Roberto Olano to fulfill his billing as the successor to Miguel Indurain, who dominated the Tour with five successive wins from 1991-95.

Dubliners may know few if any of the cycling stars, but they were winning a certain admiration from Friday's onlookers.

"I just love the way their uniforms fit. They're tasty,'' said Aoife O'Rawe, pausing from her shopping to admire a passing flock of Italian cyclists on a practice run down O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare where today's race was scheduled to finish.

The Tour departs Ireland on Monday night after a 125-mile sojourn along its southern coast, finishing in the country's second city of Cork, where three ferries will carry the bulk of the athletes, supporters and equipment on to Roscoff, Brittany, where the Tour resumes Tuesday.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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