Israel Also Has a Rider in the Tour De France

23-year-old Shani Bloch is making her mark in the women's version of the world's most famous cycling race

The Tour de France, easily the toughest and most prestigious cycle race in the world, ended in late July with Lance Armstrong writing himself into the history books by winning the race for the fourth time in a row.

But nobody seems to have given a thought to the women's version of the Tour, which began on August 4 in the Dutch town of Hertogenbosch and covers 14 stages, some of them through the mountains, in what is also the toughest event in women's cycling.

The women's Tour began in 1984 and was run every year until 1989, when the big name - perhaps the only name - among the riders was France's Jeannie Longo, who totally dominated the sport. She won the Tour three years in a row, when it was thought that other riders from outside France were the favorites, but by the time she had reached her peak, the race was stopped because of a lack of funding. It was renewed only in 1992.

Over the past two years, the race has been won by Spain's Juana Sumariva Aroya. This year Judith Erendt was favored to take the title, but after eight stages, the yellow jersey was taken from her by Zinaida Stahodskaya of Belarus.

While the names of the riders are known only exclusively to cycling afficianados, there is another rider in the list, in 18th place, who answers to the name Shani Bloch - an Israeli in the Tour de France.

Bloch is a member of the Megiddo Regional Council team, where she first clambered onto a bicycle. This Tour is not her first major race. The national road racing champion completed her third participation in the Giro D'Italia last month. The race is considered to be the second in importance after the Tour.

In previous years, Bloch was unable to participate in the Tour because her team at the time, Figurella Dream Team, decided not to take up the challenge. Things changed for her this year, when she was offered the chance to join the Italian team of SC Michel Fanini, which was taking part in the Tour, and in so doing she became the first Israeli cyclist to participate in an event that has one of the most famous names in world sports.

The beginning was not easy for the 23-year-old, as she finished the first stage in 96th place; but she improved, and by the end of the fourth stage, she had climbed to 52nd. In the seventh and eighth stages, Bloch proved that she has the ability to keep up with the world's top riders. Riding in the seventh stage in the Alps on Saturday, from Aix les Bains to Courchevel, she crossed the finish line in 18th place.

Buoyed by her success, Bloch started the next grueling mountain stage - from Courchevel to Levanjain - well, and it turned out to be her most successful to date, as she joined the leaders in a ride held in difficult conditions, with temperatures dropping to as low as freezing at some points.

She again finished high up the field, in 16th place, for an overall 18th position. She is also way up the field in the young-rider category (for under-25 year-olds) in which she occupies third place.

The Tour will end on Sunday with a time trial in Paris, and until then, she will have some more difficult climbs and a further advance up the rankings for a possible and very creditable final placing among the leading riders.

For her next event after the Tour, which ends on Sunday, Bloch will ride in the Tour of Holland that begins on August 28. She also plans to participate in the world championships in Belgium in October. With a good showing and so much more experience under her belt, the world championships will not be that daunting a challenge.