The Tour de France Feminin, which started June 29 and continues through mid-July, marks only the second time women have competed in the prestigious bicycle race around the inside circumference of France. It also is the second Tour for Patty Peoples of Gaithersburg.

"Racing the Tour was like living a fantasy," she said before this year's race.

The women's Tour is tailored after the men's race, which dates back to 1903. The women's event is about 1,150 kilometers (720 miles), approximately a quarter of the men's distance.

Peoples is one of three U.S. women competing in the 1985 Tour. Last year, Peoples rode "domestique" -- meaning she worked to put team members' race results before her own. Her teammates finished first and third overall, and she was 16th at the conclusion of 18 stages over 22 days. Peoples also helped the U.S. women win the team competition against riders from The Netherlands, England, Canada and two teams from France.

This year, Peoples, 28, is stronger. "She is like a workhorse," said Mike Fraysee, eastern vice president of the U.S. Cycling Federation, who was instrumental in getting her on the team.

"Last year she went as the sixth person to France, almost as an alternate," Fraysee said. "She had a good ride and has been improving steadily."

Although there are many women faster than Peoples in a short race such as the National Capitol Open run around the Ellipse in April, where she finished 11th, Peoples has the stamina and power needed for stage racing such as the Tour.

"You can always count on her," Fraysee said. "As a hill climber, she can stay with anybody. We don't want somebody who has one good day and then can't do much the next. She is a steady rider. Day after day."

This year's race for women started with a three-kilometer prologue time trial June 29 on the Atlantic coast. There will have been two other time trials and 15 massed-start stage races ranging from 48 to 99 kilometers (about 30 to 62 miles) before concluding in Paris on the Champs Elyse'es, where the men's race will end July 21.

From February through October, Peoples rides full time, supporting herself with a stipend from Winning-Peugeot, the team she rides for in the United States. She also gets prize money from victories on the U.S. tour, although it's often not as much. One victory, for example, brought her $190.

Europeans follow bicycle racing with a fervor not found here.

"Everybody gave us a lot of support," Peoples said of last year's race. "People gave us sponges. They gave us water. It really increased our morale."

The hardest part of the Tour was the three days of French Alps, where the athletes continuously maneuvered up and down steep mountains.

"We would climb for an hour, hour and a half -- all at once," Peoples said. "The descents were scary. We would go 60 miles an hour down little narrow roads. I would rather climb than go down the descents."

To sharpen her hill climbing, she competed in a series of events in Vermont early this month. In May, she won a two-day race in Oklahoma City.

In a race in Austin in March, Peoples was knocked down and required 10 stitches to close a cut on the back of her head. On Memorial Day in Somerville, N.J., another crash in a race resulted in 12 stitches to close an elbow cut.

Nevertheless, after crossing the finish line five minutes ahead of the next woman in a recent 50-mile race in Maryland she said, "I love racing. Your mind is so tuned in. Your senses seem to be enhanced."