PARIS (AP) – From behind prison bars, the view never changes. From behind the handlebars of racing bikes, dozens of French inmates are seeing the vineyards of Provence, the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast and the majestic spires of the Alps in their own special Tour de France.

The convicts are cycling in the inaugural “Tour de France Penitentiaire” – an event whose goal is not just to physically challenge the prisoners, organizers say, but also to instill self-respect and pride that will help prepare their return to normal life.

There are differences, of course, from the real Tour de France: The prisoners’ two-week, 1,370-mile event, which began June 4, is not as grueling as the 2,100-mile, three-week Tour. Any “breakaways” or “escapes” from the pack are strictly forbidden. And the inmates’ guards are riding along with the convicts in the peloton, or pack, with a police escort among the support vehicles. It’s not a competition, prison officials say, but rather an exercise in commitment, solidarity and grit.

“It’s a beautiful gift they’re giving me,” said Olivier, an inmate at a prison in Montmedy, near Luxembourg, who is scheduled for release in two months. He gave only his first name in accordance with French judicial regulations.

“It brings a close to my situation perfectly, spot-on,” he added. “It’s the icing on the cake.”

Officials chose the nearly 200 participating inmates from across France, prisoners with terms as short as two years and as long as 25. They are men and women, young and old, petty crooks and hardened criminals – including rapists and killers.

Most of the inmates have been training since January. The event’s 15 stages average about 90 miles, with some stretching to more than 135 miles.

Starts and finishes were selected for their proximity to penitentiaries, where the tour picks up or drops off inmates and prison personnel as it circles France. A core group of six prisoners and a dozen guards is riding the entire course, which finishes in Paris, like the real Tour – minus the champagne and fanfare.

Wardens, guards, judges and prisoners ride shoulder-to-shoulder, indistinguishable from one another in their matching white jerseys, helmets and cycling shorts.

The prison peloton has rolled through villages and hamlets to applause. Cheering crowds have massed each stage’s finish line. It helps, perhaps, that the riders are unidentifiable as members of the penal system, except for the word “Penitentiaire” across the backs of their jerseys.

As prisons have become more crowded in recent years, officials have increasingly turned their attention to the ways of returning inmates to society.

“It’s an absolute innovation to take the risk – but which is a calculated risk – of sending out so many prisoners at the same time and for so long, and to expose them in such a willful and even deliberate way to the eyes of French society,” said Francois Grosvalet, director of athletic programs for French prisons.

Andrew Coyle, a professor of prison studies at King’s College, London, who spent 25 years as an overseer in British penitentiaries, acknowledges that some people won’t understand a program that allows inmates on even a supervised outing such as this.

“Invariably, when any prison administration does these things, people will say, ‘Hang on, why is this happening? Aren’t they in there to be punished?”‘ Coyle said. “But if we’re serious about helping prisoners to re-enter and to reintegrate, then we need to find opportunities to give them positive experiences.”

French victims’ groups agree.

“At a certain moment, you have to consider these people, these individuals, these prisoners as people who might one day once again take up the path of society, of community life,” said Sabrina Bellucci, director of the French National Institute for Victims’ Aid and Mediation.

Prison officials decided on cycling “because in the history of French sporting events, the Tour de France is something that finds itself very near the summit,” Grosvalet said, speaking by phone from a support vehicle behind the riders.

British cyclist David Millar, who has won several stages of the Tour de France, said the sport was well-suited to help the inmates.

“I can’t think of a better way to strip down a person to their basic human nature,” Millar said.

He knows something about rehabilitation. He returned to racing in 2006 after serving a two-year doping suspension.

“I have had my own personal struggles,” he said, “and it was cycling that gave me the peace and tranquility I needed to rediscover myself, then the passion and drive to better myself.”

Cycling’s simple elegance has long enchanted the French, who lionize their champion riders.

“Actually, it looks a bit like the Tour de France that we know,” said Thierry Huguenin, sponsorship director for Francaise des Jeux, a French lottery group that helped finance the event.

The company also sponsors a professional cycling team, a perennial competitor in the better-known Tour; in the past months, the pro racers and coaches visited prisoners to offer advice.

Huguenin himself has been pedaling in the pack.

“The guards and the prisoners, who are usually archrivals, are teammates here,” he said, speaking by phone as he refilled his water bottles during a sunny, 116-mile stage from Valenciennes to Montmedy, in the north.

The Tour de France Penitentiaire comes at a difficult moment for the country’s penal system.

French prisons, long viewed as brutal institutions, have seen a rash of suicides by both inmates and employees recently. Correctional workers blame living and work conditions in the aging, increasingly overpopulated facilities – many dating from before World War I – and the Justice Ministry says the system is more than 10,000 detainees over capacity.

But the riders have temporarily put such concerns out of mind, focusing instead on the whir and click of spinning chains and shifting gears, on the open road unfurling before them.

“We’re not here to remind them what they’ve done,” Huguenin said. “We’re here to talk about the future.”

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