If French cycling fans could choose the ideal cyclist to win the
centennial edition of the Tour de France, who would he be? He'd
be French, of course, and he'd be just like them, a hardworking
man of the people whose humble background reflected their own.
He might be a self-sacrificing prodigy, like Rene Vietto, who as
a 20-year-old in 1934 dominated the Alps in his Tour debut but
twice had to give up his wheel, and all hope of a win, to aid
French national team leader and eventual champion Antonin Magne.
He might be a Tour de France winner, in the mold of Louison
Bobet, the baker's son from Brittany who rescued the Tour from
Swiss and Italian domination by taking three straight yellow
jerseys from 1953 through '55. Or he might be like the beloved
Raymond (Pou-Pou) Poulidor, "the loser's loser," as French
journalist Jean-Pierre Bidet calls him, the crash-prone climber
who came in second or third in the Tour an astonishing eight
times between 1962 and '76 but never once wore the yellow
jersey. Absent someone lovably salt-of-the-earth to root for, a
dominating French champion--someone along the lines of the
hard-living playboy Jacques Anquetil (winner in '57, and '61
through '64) or the hardheaded Breton Bernard Hinault (victor in
'78, '79, '81, '82 and '85)--would do just fine.
Surely the last thing the French want to see after three weeks of
centennial celebrations is the crowning of a Yank as Tour
champ--especially one who hails from the same state as George W.
Bush. What could be more galling to the Gauls, who have been the
target of American jokes, boycotts and diplomatic snubs because
of their opposition to the Iraq war, than to see Lance Armstrong,
whose record, cocksure manner and red-white-and-blue,
government-sponsored U.S. Postal Service team screams American
domination, atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees for a historic
fifth straight time, on July 27? After all, Armstrong hasn't just
dominated their Tour the last four years, he has changed its
character by introducing private jets, bodyguards and retractable
barriers to an event whose charm was once rooted in the
accessibility of its champions.
Before Armstrong became a megacelebrity as the cancer survivor
who won the world's toughest race, could French cycling fans have
imagined a scene like the one that unspooled last summer in
Lavelanet, the southern town hosting the start of stage 13? As an
autograph-hungry crowd pressed in against the retractable
barriers surrounding the USPS team bus, comedian and Armstrong
pal Robin Williams emerged from its darkened interior and happily
signed autographs for 10 minutes, maniacally spewing bon mots in
multiple languages for the fans, a world-famous celebrity serving
as warmup act to a cyclist. After signing every proffered item,
Williams slipped into the town square and relative anonymity.
Armstrong finally emerged 20 minutes later, got on his bike and
was promptly ushered away by a phalanx of bodyguards and team
officials. Armstrong's use of personal security forces ran
counter to the traditions of the Tour, says Bidet of L'Equipe,
France's largest sports daily. "It's an event where people line
the side of the road. You can reach out and touch the star
riders," he says. "But Armstrong is like Michael Schumacher. You
don't just walk up and touch him."
There are other reasons the French have been cool to Armstrong.
He hasn't had any French riders on his team for three years, he
has been slow to embrace the French language, and in 2001 he
moved his training base from Nice to Spain. His relationship with
the French press, particularly the newspaper Le Monde, which
aggressively pursued rumors that Armstrong had used
performance-enhancing drugs, has been prickly at best. Then there
is that ennui produced by Armstrong's ruthless efficiency and
laserlike focus. "The French like winners, but when the win is so
crushing, so determined from the outset, people get bored," says
Bidet. "The Tour de France seems over before it starts. French
people would like more suspense."
June 15, 2003
In this geopolitically freighted year, might there be any
unexpected twists in the way French fans treat Armstrong as he
tries to become the first American to win five Tours? Can he
expect to be greeted with anything other than simmering
Actually, yes. Despite the French-U.S. political rift, there is
much to suggest that this may be the year that France, which once
again has no true contender of its own, finally embraces Lance.
It might surprise some Americans to learn that in response to all
the France-bashing Stateside, there has been little retaliatory
pettiness on the part of the French. There were, for example, no
signs of war-related anti-Americanism at the French Open, where
Andre Agassi received loud cheers of appreciation after he bowed
out in the quarterfinals. The French may in fact be eager to get
back in the U.S.'s good graces, if only to lure back the tourists
who are staying home because of terrorism concerns, fears of an
anti-American backlash and the flagging dollar.
Tour manager Jean-Marie Leblanc doesn't believe that Armstrong or
other U.S. cyclists will encounter any war-related
anti-Americanism, but he and other Tour organizers did raise the
issue of security during a May meeting with France's Interior
Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered his staff to look into
whether additional measures should be taken to assure the safety
of Armstrong and other U.S. (and U.S. Postal team) riders. "We
don't have the results, but we will shortly, and I am convinced
that it will be the same as last year," Leblanc told SI in late
May. "In short, there'll be no particular reason to smother Mr.
Armstrong with protection to assure his safety."
Whatever actual barriers go up between Armstrong and the public,
there should be fewer perceived ones. During last year's Tour
observers detected a warming trend in Franco-Lancian relations.
Armstrong conducted more interviews in French, hired
less-menacing bodyguards and, while not as obliging as his friend
Williams, signed plenty of autographs. Aside from the group of
drunks who yelled "Dope!" during his ascent of Mount Ventoux in
stage 12, things went well between him and the French public.
The relationship should be even better this year. Although there
will always be skeptics in France who attribute Armstrong's
dominance to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, that topic
should no longer dominate the front pages of the country's
papers; a French court's two-year investigation of drugs in
cycling ended last September without producing any evidence that
Armstrong has taken banned substances. Additionally, Armstrong
surprised many Europeans this winter when he told an Italian
newspaper and a Spanish radio station that he was not in favor of
an Iraq war and that he had told President Bush as much. Such a
public declaration of conviction on a controversial issue--almost
unheard of among elite U.S. athletes these days--is certain to
bolster his standing on the Continent.
On top of that, Armstrong might get some real challenges on the
road this year and provide the drama the French long for. Though
1997 champion and four-time runner-up Jan Ullrich, who missed
last year's Tour because of a knee injury, has switched from
Telekom to the weaker Team Coast, he remains a threat. And this
year's Giro d'Italia winner, Gilberto Simoni, who sat out the
last Tour because of a drug suspension that was later overturned,
promises to be another. "[Armstrong] has always had an easy ride
to Paris because he's never faced real climbers," said Simoni
after winning the Giro in May. "If we can get him in a trap, we
can make him panic."
Overcoming obstacles--that's what the French like to see a rider
doing, and what Armstrong happens to be very good at.
Lance Versus France p. A4
U.S. Cycling's Next Big Thing p. A6
The 2003 Tour Course: Stage by Stage p. A10
Appalachian Misadventure p. A15
Inside Out p. A19
Murphy's Law p. A24