If French cycling fans could choose the ideal athlete to win the centennial edition of the Tour de France, who would he be? He'd be French, of course. Surely the last thing the French would want to see 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 on July 27 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-Elysées for a historic fifth straight time? After all, Armstrong has not just dominated their Tour the last four years, he has changed its character by introducing private jets, bodyguards and retractable barriers to a sport whose charm was once rooted in the accessibility of its champions.
Armstrong's remoteness and use of personal security runs counter to the traditions of the Tour, says Jean-Pierre Bidet, cycling correspondent 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 he moved his training base from Nice to Spain. His relationship with the French press, particularly Le Monde, which aggressively pursued rumors that Armstrong had used performance- enhancing drugs, has been prickly. Then there is that ennui produced by Armstrong's ruthless efficiency. "The French like winners, but when the win is so crushing 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 hostility?
Actually, yes. Despite the political rift, this may be the year that France, which once again has no true contender of its own, finally embraces Armstrong. 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, few 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.
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Tour manager Jean-Marie Leblanc doesn't believe that Armstrong or other U.S. cyclists will encounter any hostility, but he did raise the issue of security during a May meeting with France's Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered his staff to determine whether additional measures should be taken to reassure the American riders. "I am convinced that it will be the same as last year," Leblanc predicted. "There'll be no particular reason to smother Mr. Armstrong with protection."
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 signed plenty of autographs. Aside from the group of drunks who yelled "Dopé!" during his ascent of Mount Ventoux in Stage 14, things went well between him and the French public.
The relationship should be even better this year. A French court's two-year investigation of drugs in cycling ended last September without any evidence that Armstrong has taken banned substances. And Armstrong surprised many Europeans this winter when he told interviewers he was not in favor of an Iraq war. Such a public declaration almost unheard of among elite U.S. athletes these days is certain to improve his standing on the Continent.
Also, Armstrong might get some real challenges on the road this year. Jan Ullrich, the German 1997 champion and four-time runner-up who missed last year's Tour because of a knee injury, remains a threat. And this year's Giro d'Italia winner, Italian Gilberto Simoni, who sat out the last Tour because of a drug suspension that was later overturned, promises to be another contender. "[Armstrong] has always had an easy ride to Paris because he's never faced real climbers," said Simoni. "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.