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Will France Take It Out on Lance?

Given the testy relations between the U.S. and France, will the French be harder than ever on Lance Armstrong? Au contraire

By Kelli Anderson

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Even as they pay Armstrong his due, some French view his success as a symbol of U.S. imperialism.  Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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 René 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-Élysées 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."

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 hostility?

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 "Dopé!" 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.

Issue date: June 16, 2003

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