France's convicts kick off cycle race

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MARCO WERMAN: Next door to Italy, in France, an unusual event kicked off this week. It's a bicycle race with multiple stages over 14 days. If you're thinking Tour de France think again. The big race doesn't start until next month. This one is called the Penal Tour de France and instead of Lance Armstrong and his elite mates the cyclists are prison inmates and their guards. There are strict security rules. No isolated attempts to break away from the pack for example. Inmates from jails all around France are taking part. The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby met some of the participants as they trained for the event at a prison in the northern city of Lille.

EMMA JANE KIRBY: These three riders are on exercise bikes in a gym in Lille prison. They're getting in shape for the first ever Penal Tour de France and Hakim can't wait.

HAKIM: [SPEAKING IN FRENCH]
TRANSLATOR: It's very different from being inside and it gives us the chance to prove to our families that we're capable of doing something worthwhile.

KIRBY: At this special news conference Jean-Paul [PH] Chapou from the prison service who cam up with the idea is explaining what he hopes to come out of the project. The main idea is that the prisoners will foster values like team work and effort that'll serve them well once their sentences are finished and when they get outside.

JEAN-PAUL CHAPOU: [SPEAKING IN FRENCH]
TRANSLATOR: The whole point of prison is to help inmates reintegrate back into society and we need to make sure the time they spend inside is useful and that they learn things here. So this project gets them back in the saddle, if you'll pardon the pun, and it gives them a chance to take some control over their own lives.

KIRBY: Trainer Jose David believes in giving lots of encouragement during training sessions. He hopes that the Tour de France experience will not only change the participants' perspective but will also help society to look at the prisoners differently.

JOSE DAVID: Now they will see the door is opening and their family see they are good. They are not only bad.

KIRBY: Fifty male prisoners have been selected from Lille to take part in the race but there's just one woman ? Vanessa. She's very tall, with lots of piercings, and by her own admission she's not overly sporty.

VANESSA: [SPEAKING FRENCH]
TRANSLATOR: I thought it sounded quite cool. I mean I've never done much sport before and I've never cycled but it's been a great experience. There was a bit of jealousy among some of my fellow inmates but others have been really supportive. I work in the prison laundry and the girls keep saying, do it for the laundry. Go on. Do it for the girls. It's great.

KIRBY: But are the participants looking for something a little more concrete out of the experience. Hakim hopes that a good performance will result in an early release.

HAKIM: [SPEAKING FRENCH]
TRANSLATOR: It lets us think about the future. If we prove ourselves then maybe we'll get our sentences reduced or be allowed out on parole with an electronic tag. We've won the trust of the judge so we'll be on our best behavior.

KIRBY: It's not all about gym work. Once a week there's a training session in the outside world. For the 200 inmates taking part the Penal Tour de France is opening many doors.

WERMAN: The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby there reporting from Lille in France.

WERMAN: Coming up a Canadian city embraces the bicycle on PRI.