BAR-LE-DUC, France (AP) _ At the Tour de France, speculation about drugs is rarely far away, and Lance Armstrong knows it.
Even questions unrelated to doping prompt the two-time champion to comment on the sport's tarnished reputation.
``The people still love the sport, they love the riders, they love the teams, they support it,'' Armstrong said when asked about the two stages in Belgium.
``Regardless of all the speculation and innuendo surrounding cycling, it's still a beautiful event. It's still fabulously popular, and the people respect it. That's always nice to see.''
Tens of thousands of cycling fans have turned out to see the first five days of this year's race, crowding together along country lanes and city streets to catch a glimpse of the riders.
Families stand at the roadside to watch the annual event, braving strong winds, cold drizzles and gloomy gray skies.
Armstrong's tribute to their passion came a few days after a media frenzy over his association with an Italian doctor whose name has been linked to the doping agent EPO.
As the controversy filled newspaper columns, the Texan urged reporters to give people the facts and to not ``speculate all the time.''
By Wednesday's fourth stage between Huy, Belgium, and Verdun in eastern France the uproar had died down, but Armstrong still was cagey with journalists.
He nevertheless gave an interview in French on his performance in the 133.52-mile run.
``It was a very, very hard day,'' he told French TV reporters. ``All the favorites were in the front of the pack. But it's better to have them there than ahead of the pack.''
Armstrong ended the stage in 30th place, 7 seconds behind winner Laurent Jalabert. The victory marked the Frenchman's comeback from a triple rib fracture, which he sustained in February when he fell off a ladder at his home in Geneva, Switzerland.
``It's a lesson in courage,'' said the 32-year-old Jalabert. ``I never gave up. I started from very low and I have had a lot of doubts recently.''
Australia's Stuart O'Grady held on to the yellow jersey as the overall leader for a second day. Armstrong was seventh overall.
Armstrong won his first career stage-victory in Verdun in 1993, becoming the youngest rider since World War II to win a stage. He was 21.
On Thursday, Armstrong was to ride in the team time-trial between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc, a discipline in which the American squad is expected to do well.