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-Ch�teaux. 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. � 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 Dauphin� Lib�r� 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 Indur�in—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 mat 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 Dauphin�.
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.