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Lance in France (Part 6)

June 28, 2004
June 28, 2004

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June 28, 2004

Cycling
The 101 Most Influential Minorities In Sports
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Photo Credits: Jonas Karlsson/Sports Illustrated

Lance in France (Part 6)

Don't let the smile fool you. New doping allegations and a defeat in the Alps have only steeled Lance Armstrong in his bid to win a record sixth straight Tour de France

The pack has been waiting for a while now, milling outside the
tourist hall, smoking, gossiping, edgy in the cool evening air.
At just past 9:10, heads lift all at once, jerked up by a
stirring across the street, by the mere scent of him coming.
There he is, hair shorn tight, striding past the gleaming U.S.
Postal Service vehicles set so incongruously in the village of
Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux. He's bouncing on the balls of his
feet, eyes darting, taking in the scrum of French journalists,
the fans, the mayor. The crowd parts as he approaches. He passes,
and everyone falls in behind him. Most days he enters a room like
a colossus, his hollowed cheeks and bony frame enlarged by the
heft of his improbable deeds; most days he is Lance Armstrong,
All-American, the man who beat cancer and triumphed in five
straight Tours de France. But this is not one of those days.

This is an article from the June 28, 2004 issue Original Layout

Cyclists speak too often of suffering, but sometimes the word is
apt: Just hours ago Armstrong suffered a humiliating defeat on
the flanks of a mountain on which he's never won. Mount Ventoux,
he says, is his favorite stage in all of racing, but on this
Thursday, in his final tune-up for the 2004 Tour de France, it
not only gave him nothing again but also took something away.
Iban Mayo of Spain crushed Armstrong, perhaps the smartest
climber in cycling history, by the massive margin of nearly two
minutes in an individual time trial, ending Armstrong's hope of
winning the prestigious Dauphine Libere race and opening a crack
in his mystique. None of the Tour de France's other five-time
winners--Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and
Miguel Indurain--won the Tour past the age of 31. At 32,
Armstrong doesn't want to give his rivals any reason to consider
him done. This afternoon he did.

Yet, on this night, racing is the least of his problems. In
Europe, unlike in America, Armstrong's postcancer accomplishments
stirred skepticism in the press. Lance, a sporting miracle? For
years cycling has been less movable feast than movable pharmacy,
and Armstrong's crusade against performance-enhancing drugs has
inspired as much eye-rolling as admiration. He has been
drug-tested regularly by cycling's governing bodies and
investigated as part of an extensive two-year French
law-enforcement probe of drug use in cycling, and he has always
been declared clean. Still, whenever a European journalist says,
"Saint Lance," it's with a sneer. And three weeks before the Tour
begins, the old buzz has gotten louder.

Rumors have been circulating about a forthcoming book, L.A.
Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh, a
longtime cycling reporter for The Sunday Times of London, and
Pierre Ballester, a French freelance journalist, that accuses
Armstrong of doping. In a few days the French magazine L'Express
will publish excerpts in which a former member of Armstrong's
camp implies that Armstrong used the banned substance
erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the production of
oxygen-carrying red blood cells, before his first Tour win, in
1999. Meanwhile, the day's papers are filled with news that, a
year ago, Armstrong wrote an e-mail alerting cycling authorities
to the rising use of artificial hemoglobin by riders. The reports
imply that Armstrong's purpose was to implicate the Spanish
cyclists who had pressed him during his win in the 2003 Dauphine.

As Armstrong walks into a stuffy room in the tourist hall for a
press conference, he is virtually under siege. Is he a hypocrite?
A snitch? A cheater? He is primed for a fight. "The last five
years there have been some difficult relations with the French
public," a French journalist says. "Will you try to approach a
bit more to the French public? Or you don't care?"

"What kind of a difficult relationship are we talking about?"
Armstrong replies. "Today, how many people were standing on the
side of Mount Ventoux? One hundred thousand maybe? How many times
did I hear something negative? Three? Do you have a calculator?"
He stares at the reporter long enough to make him squirm. "It's
not very many people," Armstrong says finally. "I'm very
appreciative of the support, and I try my best to be as friendly
as I can, I try to speak the language when I can. Let's not
create a problem that's not there."

A few more questions, and then another French journalist turns
the conversation to doping. He asks Armstrong about the
hemoglobin e-mail, which was reported in the French newspaper Le
Monde
. Armstrong asks if anyone from Le Monde is in the room. No
answer. "Surprise, surprise," he says. "Because they're soooo
interested in cycling ... I guess." Armstrong says that he's
"fighting for cycling" by writing such missives, but "never--and
I repeat, never--were the Spanish ever implicated.... I find it
terribly ironic that [Le Monde is] not here to listen to the
clarification."

The press conference limps to a close, and Armstrong says to an
American reporter, "Do you think I set the record straight on
that?" It isn't a question.

Armstrong knows he's asking for trouble. Soon L.A.
Confidential--which he derides as "a National Lampoon book"--will
be front-page news, and he could use some French friends. But he
isn't interested in currying favor. No, he's grinning as if he'd
just won a barroom brawl. "I love it," he says, talking faster
now, wired. "The guy who asked the stupid question about the
French people hating me? That was good; it was there. I had to
take him on."

Last year, as Armstrong prepared for the Tour de France, that
vague French disdain for a certain kind of American found a clear
target.

In his cowboy vernacular, in his good-versus-evil pronouncements,
in his admonishments to U.S. allies--such as France--that didn't
support the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush struck the
French as the embodiment of holier-than-thou attitudes. In a
recent nationwide survey conducted by a U.S. pollster, 85% of
respondents gave Bush a negative rating. The man from Texas is
not subtle, not stylish or deep like Americans the French adore.
He's not Bill Clinton.

Americans, meanwhile, were busy boycotting French wine and
chomping "freedom fries," and few noted the scenario about to
unfold: France's greatest sporting event, which winds over
country roads and mountain passes and down the Champs-Elysees,
would once again be won by an American, and a high-strung Texan
at that.

Armstrong had had four years of sticky relations with the French,
especially in 1999 and 2000, when drug rumors about him flew and
spectators would yell, "Dope! Dope!" as he passed. "So now," he
says, "there's Bush, and I'm from Texas, I serve on his cancer
panel, we could be viewed as friends--a lot of things where they
could say, 'You're a bad guy.' The French don't support the war,
and the next thing you know, we hate them and they hate us. Sixty
days before the Tour, I'm thinking, These people are never going
to let me finish. If one French [spectator] doesn't want you to
win the Tour, you don't win. I'm thinking, I'm doomed."

x

Says Armstrong of those who have alleged doping, "We're going after all of them. I've been attacked every day for five years, and I've had enough."

x

Never mind that Armstrong opposed the war too. ("There's a lot of
bad guys out there running small bad countries," he says. "Why go
and get them?") His problems with the French ran deeper than U.S.
foreign policy. His aggressive manner is tailor-made to irritate
the French sensibility. He's cocky and judgmental and delivers
his opinions without softening kisses on the cheeks. "Roberto's a
good guy, but he never fit in with the team," Armstrong says of
Spanish cyclist Roberto Heras, who left the U.S. Postal squad
after last season and will be one of Armstrong's rivals in this
year's Tour. "He didn't use this team to improve himself--didn't
use our knowledge, didn't use our experience, didn't really care.
Roberto could be a lot more professional." (Asked about
Armstrong's criticism, Heras had no comment.)

Even Armstrong's most loyal colleagues use the words arrogant and
obnoxious to describe their first impressions of him. Jogi
Muller's first meeting with Armstrong came during a race more
than a decade ago. Muller, who is Swiss, was riding for an
opposing team when he heard a twangy voice behind him demand that
he move out of the way. "He was a Texas brat," says Muller, now
the European press agent for the USPS team, "but he's improved."

Yes, Armstrong has learned to speak some French and professes
great respect for French culture, but respect isn't love. He got
exactly what he gave to the French public--until last year's
Tour, when "all the jeers and taunts from earlier years had
totally gone away," he says. "The French fans were completely
supportive."

But that was before June 14, when the L.A. Confidential excerpts
ran. In a searing assault on Armstrong's integrity, his former
masseuse, a 33-year-old Irishwoman named Emma O'Reilly,
insinuates in the book that Armstrong used EPO before the 1999
Tour. (She claims that Armstrong gave her this impression in a
conversation.) O'Reilly also alleges that Armstrong asked her for
makeup to cover bruises on his arms caused by injections; gave
her a bag of empty syringes to dispose of; and sent her to the
U.S. Postal team's headquarters in Spain to pick up two dozen
unspecified white pills for him. The timing of the excerpts'
publication couldn't have been worse: Just a day later Armstrong
flew to Washington, D.C., for a press conference to introduce his
team's new sponsor for 2005-07, the Discovery Channel. (The USPS
had announced in April that it would end its sponsorship after
this year.)

Armstrong used the press conference to deny O'Reilly's
allegations, and he later filed suit in London and Paris against
the book's authors, publishers and excerpting publications.
Speaking to SI last week, he called the book's charges
"absolutely, positively false" and attributed them to a
long-running feud between himself and Walsh, who has aggressively
questioned him on the issue of doping. Armstrong has never hidden
the fact that he used EPO, for bona fide medical reasons, in his
battle with testicular cancer in 1996 and '97, when he was not
competing. But when asked if he has ever used drugs to enhance
his cycling performance, Armstrong said, "For the millionth time:
I don't do that. Look at the record, look at the amount of
controls, look at my activities within the sport: engaging with
the governing bodies, engaging with the organizations to increase
the fight against doping. Look at the two-year French federal
investigation. They looked everywhere: blood, urine, hair,
personal contacts, phone records, you name it--and ... zero.
Zero. It's pretty compelling."

He pointed out that in the previous day's International Herald
Tribune
, Walsh was quoted as saying that his book's evidence is
"all circumstantial" and that "we don't actually prove anything."
Armstrong laughed and said, "That's got to be one of the dumbest
statements known to man if you're about to get your ass sued."

As for O'Reilly, Armstrong said he doesn't know what motivated
her attack, but "she has no proof." He added, "We're going after
all of them. I've been attacked every day for five years, and
I've had enough."

Last year Armstrong won the Tour by a nerve-racking 61 seconds.
He went into the race suffering from a stomach ailment and
preoccupied with his divorce from his wife, Kristin, and he
endured a spectacular crash and a cornfield detour to avoid a
pile-up. This year he is happier because of his relationship with
his girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow. But the time he has spent
away from his three kids has been a torment, and the need to find
a sponsor to replace the USPS, coupled with the impending
publication of Walsh's book, have provided plenty of stress.
Armstrong is angry now, and he feels the best way to answer the
charges against him is to win again. He calls it his "mission."

So maybe he pulls it off. Maybe next month he becomes the first
man to win the Tour six times. "There's a very small part of me
that wants to break this record," he said a few weeks ago in a
hotel room in France. "There's a big part of me that wants to win
the Tour de France, and another part that says, 'Oh, by the way,
you do that, you make history.' I'm no fool: That's a cool
thing."

But talking about himself in parts, in sentences burdened with
qualifiers, was not Armstrong's way before. No other active
cyclist hurled himself at the Tour with such single-minded fury.
He had Americans with no interest in cycling suddenly caring
about who was wearing the yellow jersey. The rewards have been
massive: He earns $16 million a year. He has made it clear, with
the Discovery Channel agreement, that he will ride in the Tour
again next year; the deal, in fact, requires it.

Hours before this year's climb up Mount Ventoux, Postal cyclist
George Hincapie said that Armstrong is a more relaxed, more
complete rider this year. "He's stronger than I've ever seen
him," said Hincapie, who has ridden with him for 14 years.
Armstrong looked anything but strong, though, as he struggled up
desolate, sun-blasted Ventoux. His will faded at the halfway
point, and the only message he sent was one of vulnerability.
Gasping to a fifth-place finish, head down, he looked, for the
first time, old.

He has sandbagged opponents before, of course. But Armstrong made
drastic changes in his schedule to be with his kids in the States
this spring, opting out of European races and the chance to
measure his top opponents. "I needed to be with my children," he
says. "If that's the reason I lose the Tour de France, so be it."

In the course of one conversation, Armstrong both mulls
retirement and pronounces himself horrified by the idea. There's
no avoiding the end-of-an-era feeling that hangs over the U.S.
Postal Service team; next year most of the members will return
under the Discovery Channel banner, but as rider Floyd Landis
puts it, "It won't be like this." Even though in '05 Armstrong
could conceivably be racing for his seventh Tour win, everyone on
the team is thinking about life after Lance.

Winning five straight Tours is Armstrong's legacy, of course, but
he didn't do it alone. No one talks much about last year's
winning team time trial, or about how in stage 15 the eight other
USPS riders helped Armstrong turn his slim 15-second lead over
Jan Ullrich into a 67-second advantage. But the fact is, the
other USPS riders are a big part of this decade's greatest sports
dynasty. "That team is amazing," says former Postal rider
Christian Vande Velde. "They're some of the best riders in the
world--George, Chechu Rubiera, Floyd, Triki Beltran,
[Viatcheslav] Ekimov, my idol since I was 12--and when new guys
come in, they do just as much damage."

Armstrong has welded all this talent into a team dedicated to his
success. He also brought in Johan Bruyneel, who has been the
team's director for five years. The team's United Nations makeup
(Swiss cook, Mexican mechanic, Polish masseur, riders from
Portugal, Spain and Russia) should stop anyone tempted to
celebrate Armstrong's triumphs as purely American efforts.
Armstrong pays his teammates well (all Tour winnings--some
$400,000 for the overall victory plus bonuses--go to them), and
the rest of the year he wisely switches roles with them, breaking
wind and chasing down breakaways while they pocket the wins. "You
weed out the guys who have personal ambition," he says, referring
to riders such as Heras and Tyler Hamilton, who have left to
become team leaders themselves. The others know their places.

"As far as putting your ego behind you?" asks one of Armstrong's
domestiques, Landis. "It's like anything in life: There's
probably 100 people who want to be President, but nearly all have
to accept that they're not going to be, and they end up in
Congress. But God only knows why you'd want to be President."

At this point the rider from Texas might ask the same question.
There are only three other men alive, his fellow five-time Tour
winners (Anquetil died in 1987), who know what it's like to
tangle with the press and the French fans and spend months
hearing that your time at the top is nearly done. The Discovery
Channel's sponsorship appealed to Armstrong because of the
network's long-term promise to turn him into an on-air talent.
He's already planning his next act.

The morning after his debacle on Ventoux, as Armstrong got ready
for the new book's stabs at his reputation, a Postal staffer
parked in front of his leader's hotel and turned up the car
stereo, so that the sound of a woman's voice filled the
courtyard. The first cut is the deepest, Sheryl Crow sang, over
and over. Was it a joke? A warning? It felt like the beginning of
the end.