Cyclists set out for Beijing Games - from France

Over 12,000km across Europe and Asia

A group of 104 cyclists will embark upon the ultimate marathon for their sport as their personal curtain-raiser to the Olympic Games when they set off for Beijing on 16 March, the group announced on Tuesday.

The group will pedal 12,234 kilometres (7,500 miles) across more than a dozen countries after leaving the Trocadero square opposite the Eiffel Tower. They're bound for the Great Wall of China, which they hope to reach on 3 August, with five days to spare ahead of the Games.

The odyssey is being co-sponsored by the French Cyclotourism Federation (FFCT).

Participants, who include 21 women, will stop off at various points along the route to offer educational services to locals. The youngest member of the group, which includes a tandem of one blind man and a colleague, is a 19-year-old student while the oldest is 76.

"We had 300 calls from people who were interested and had to disappoint a few," said the FFCT, whose chairman, Dominique Lamouller, invited the remainder to join in for the final 1200 kilometres from Xi'an.

The group will cover two sections of the course by train for logistical purposes, in Kazakhstan and China. Overnight stays will range from anything from a hotel to a tent.

"It's an extraordinary adventure within reach for ordinary people," said supervisor Jean-Michel Richefort of the operation, which will cost around two million euros, with participants stumping up 85 percent with the FFCT and the French ministry for youth and sport paying the remainder.

The group's progress can be followed live online on www.parispekinavelo.com.

© AFP 2008

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