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-Elys�es, 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."
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 M�ller's first meeting with Armstrong came during a race more than a decade ago. M�ller, 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 M�ller, 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."