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Saturday, July 24, 2004
In a country of cycling fans, Lance is central

Associated Press

PARIS -- As Lance Armstrong races toward unheard-of Tour de France glory, France is torn. Many resent a brash Texan muscling in on their beloved cycling classic. But how can you hate such a champ?

"Face it, the man is amazing," Sebastian Bizeul, a medical technician, put it. He reflected a broad national sentiment. Of course, he'd prefer to see a Frenchman on top, he said. But it's a fair fight.

Barring some mishap, Armstrong is expected to win his sixth Tour de France victory in a row Sunday. No one has won more than five.

"This stuff about drugs, his aloof manner, his guards -- it is all minor if you care about the sport," Bizeul said. "He has worked hard, and he is grand champion. You've got to give it to him."

Henri Leconte, a retired French tennis great, wrote a glowing tribute in the daily Le Monde, calling Armstrong's image of being distant and prickly a fabrication of the media.

"He is, above all, absolutely normal," he wrote. "He is very kind, generous and respectful of others. ... He has his heart in his hand, and his fight against cancer proves it."

And, Leconte added, "He had the decency to learn French. He loves France."

The sentiment is hardly unanimous.

On Friday, when Italian Filippo Simeoni streaked ahead to try for victory on a stage that would not affect overall standings, Armstrong chased him down in a personal attack and herded him back to the main pack.

Simeoni had said that he had been prescribed performance-enhancing drugs by one of Armstrong's medical advisers. Armstrong called him a liar. Simeoni sued for defamation.

The popular daily, Liberation, accused Armstrong of "imbecilic cruelty," saying that "his conceit has become a spirit of absolute domination."

Some riders said Simeoni was in the wrong. Armstrong told reporters later, "All he wants to do is destroy cycling and the sport that pays him."

Armstrong's move reminded one of the film "The Godfather," when a Mafia enforcer put a dead horse in a man's bed to lay down the law.

At times, over-enthusiastic fans irritated the French. Words painted on a roadway urged Armstrong in crude American slang to emasculate his rivals. Someone else, perhaps a Frenchman with colloquial English, added: "Armstrong sucks."

As riders slowed for grueling climbs, some people whistled and shouted insults. Another piece of roadway art featured syringes, a reference to unproven charges that Armstrong used drugs.

Many of the insults came from spectators waving German flags, fans of Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloden, leaders of the T-Mobile team that follow in Armstrong's slipstream.

But more sympathetic scenes were common.

On one stretch of country road, a French farmer watched the pack flash by. A huge American flag was stuck in the front bumper of his battered old Peugeot.

In Carcassone, the mayor offered Armstrong a night of luxury in the old walled city, and the crowd bellowed its approval. A lone voice, audible only to those nearby, yelled: "Doper."

Armstrong knows he's not the only five-time champion to be booed, but still found it puzzling.

"The people that stand there and boo ... What kind of a champion do they want? Do they want a champion that doesn't work hard? That doesn't love his sport?"

"Regardless," he said, "for me it's comforting to know that all the past champions were not the favorites. Especially in a country where sometimes they like the person that gets second a lot better than the person that gets first. But if that's the risk -- to be loved you have to get second -- I'll take a few boos and hisses."

Throughout the three-week race, the French have lavished attention on local heroes, particularly 25-year-old Thomas Voeckler, who for 10 straight days wore the leader's yellow jersey.

But when the race turned uphill on Tuesday, Voeckler trailed far behind. Armstrong calculated his force with habitual precision and surged forward to win the stage.

Cameras lingered on Armstrong's face, beatific with joy, as he punched both fists high into the air. After that, it was his race.

Sometimes the praise was grudging, but it was there nonetheless.

"Personally, I don't like him," declared Yvon Perrot, a French railways official. "Like some of the others who won five times, he concentrates on the Tour de France, ignoring other great races."

He shifted to thoughts on what he called American imperialism and the troubled state of a world dominated by a single superpower.

"Look, he is a grand champion," Perrot concluded. "He has a really good team. He spends months training in France. You have to admire him."

In the club-car of a TGV train streaking across France, the young man behind the snackbar had no hesitation about lauding Lance.

"I don't care what his nationality is, or where he comes from -- he is a legend, a modern-day myth," the youth said.

"There is a lot of jealousy in France, and many people hate to see someone from outside do so well," he said. "The French don't really talk much about him. They look for drugs, some explanation."

But in the end, he said, France sees Lance Armstrong as a remarkable man who has proven what will can do.

"How can you miss that?" he asked.