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Under normal circumstances, you might find the clashing of worlds between exhausted journalists driving foreign cars along narrow mountain passes and thousands of eager sports fans running into the road to grab free trinkets and candy to be horrifically ill-conceived.

And under normal circumstances, you might well be right. Of course, this is by no means normal. This is the Tour de France.

Barrelling to the summit of the Col de la Madeleine, our blue media-accredited Volkswagen careens past thousands who have been standing at the roadside for hours waiting for the alarmingly brief moment when their senses will be filled with the colours, sounds and smells that accompany the almost 200 riders of the Tour de France.

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To mollify this lot in its moment of drawn-out anticipation, the organizers of the world's most prestigious bicycle race send a 20-kilometre stretch of corporately sponsored cars and floats up the road to blast music and hand out gifts.

During the tour, the 200 vehicles that make up the publicity caravan pass out an estimated 11 million items, ranging in value and utility from sensible pairs of red flip-flops to mystifyingly useless pocket-sized foam eggplants.

Following closely in tow, but still ahead of the race, an unofficial caravan of team cars, race officials and journalists weave through the many fans who dive after the free handouts, each driver working with one part of his brain to interpret radio dispatches about the bicycle race unfolding behind and, with the other, more absent-minded portion, to steer the car away from collision or injury.

Elsewhere, on an alternate route, a convoy of team buses race from the morning's start to the afternoon's finish in an effort to set up in time to get the food and other particulars ready for when the riders arrive.

Mixed in among the buses, large Tour de France trucks haul the workings of a small village -- complete with a bank, a barber and a VIP lounge -- that circumnavigates the country every July, stopping to set up shop for only short glimpses at each place the tour either starts or finishes.

Every year, the same scenario unfolds and every year the race tours the country with impressive efficiency, winding from north to south, only to turn around and head for the grand finale in Paris.

My introduction to the tour came on a flat section midway through the 10th stage where, as part of a bike tour run by retired Tour de France racer Steve Bauer, I rode parts of the route just hours before the race.

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Though barely a slice of what the riders undergo during the inconceivably fast three-week, 3,395-kilometre race, my repeated days in the saddle, and the long grinds up mountains, such as the storied 2,115-metre-high Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, gave me a sense of the exhilaration, and the exhaustion, riders must feel as they clear one major mountain only to find four others waiting up the road.

As a journalist, a role I slipped into for the final week of the event, I found it astonishing to watch these men live their daily routines of repeated race and recovery.

Riders would eat large breakfasts of pasta, cereal or bread three hours before each day's start, and then, after a review of tactics, and perhaps a coffee, they would take to the course to grind through about four to six hours on their bikes.

Upon finishing, the riders would have a massage, a team dinner and perhaps some time to relax before going to bed in search of enough rest to see them through a similar schedule the next day.

Amid all of this, an international stew of media correspondents scoured the team camps and rider hotels, looking for stories not being carried by the wire services or shown on televisions across the world.

On an average day, once a stage was done and the terrifyingly competitive television scrums around individual riders and coaches were complete, all of us would retire to the pressroom to weave our respective yarns.

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In one corner of the giant room, the Texas contingent regularly compared angles about Lance Armstrong, their hometown hero and five-time defending champion.

In another, a hefty Italian newspaper man would bang the keys of his blue typewriter, burning what was left of his pack of Marlboros before he dictated his story to an editor back home.

Among it all, radio reporters speaking a variety of languages, some of which I still have yet to identify, bellowed their reports excitedly into cellphones or other devices.

And within the almost 1,200-person press corps -- from the food and travel writer in search of a backdrop to the die-hard sports scribes who've spent their entire careers writing about cycling -- the tie that binds is an interest in, and love for, an event bigger than any of us can really explain.

But as wondrous as the tour can be, the gruelling test of endurance also has a dark side -- one where dreams of those who spend their entire year working like slaves and living like monks, just for a chance to compete, can be quashed in a heartbeat.

American rider Tyler Hamilton, who came fourth last year after breaking his collarbone in a crash, and who was a clear favourite for the podium this year, had to retire from the race because of injuries suffered in a 65-kilometre-an-hour pileup during the sixth stage.

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As he stood watching Armstrong ride the final laps before rolling into history on the Champs Élysées on Sunday, Hamilton explained his cruel relegation with a simple "It sucks" before returning to watch the finish.

As we crossed paths at the airport in Paris yesterday, Hamilton and his wife took a moment to joke about his horrid luck.

He said he should improve his chances next year by riding with football pads, and his wife suggested he burn incense on his handlebars for good karma.

Turning to the future, the 33-year-old said he has changed course and set his sights on the Olympics in Athens, where he is hoping he can make up for lost time,

Still, it remains clear that all he wanted was an honest shot at this year's tour and a chance to see how he could fare while riding at his best.

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