Armstrong does it again, this time with France roaring approval
Monday, July 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
PARIS (AP) _ As Lance Armstrong flashed to a fourth straight Tour de France triumph, a nation once cool to him roared along a Champs-Elysees ablaze in enough stars and stripes to recall Liberation Day.
Never mind that Texans cheering an Austin boy waved many of those U.S. flags, or that much of the noise was for Laurent Jalabert _ ``Jaja,'' the local hero in the red polka-dot jersey and constant good humor.
French fans who revere victory against odds bellowed homage to a ride-his-heart-out phenomenon who muscled aside cancer to dominate their beloved national sport.
``Merci Jaja ... Bravo Armstrong,'' read the headline in Sunday's Le Parisien, capturing the divided sentiment.
``A man's value is his spirit, not his country, and Armstrong is a super champion,'' said Dominique Audusseau, a wine dealer who is wacky for cycling. ``I adore the guy. He'll be first to win six Tours.''
The 30-year-old Armstrong could do it. Fierce rivals heap praise on his technique, tactics and timing. And he shows no sign of slowing down.
Meanwhile, Sunday's victory was enough to celebrate.
Armstrong crossed the finish line deep in the pack, but the Tour is won by overall time. He was 7 minutes, 17 seconds ahead, a lead he earned over three weeks in the world's most grueling sports event.
His wife, Kristin, stood at the finish, a twin infant in each arm. Son Luke romped nearby. On the winner's podium, Armstrong put his cap over his heart for the ``Star Spangled Banner.'' Fans held up a Lone Star flag.
And the French seemed to love it all.
The mood was different a week ago, as Armstrong slogged up Mont Ventoux to a chorus of hecklers chanting, ``Doped! Doped!'' even though repeated drug tests have never revealed a hint of illegal substances.
French sports writers still take potshots, irritated that he likes to retreat to his trailer after each day rather than schmooze as the only other American champion, Greg LeMond, used to do.
Unlike any other rider in the race's history, he isolates himself behind a bodyguard.
During the 20-stage Tour, crowds were sometimes subdued when Armstrong rode by, as if unsure what to make of the lean, hard American whose public persona is closer to machine than man.
France likes its heroes to lose a little and show more human passion than the brash superstars Americans prefer. And, after all, no Frenchman has won the 99-year-old French classic since 1985.
But this year, the single-minded Texan seemed to have pedaled up and over the cultural barrier.
Bernard Hinault, who won that 1985 race and four others, watched the finish. Asked his reaction, he exuded praise. ``Armstrong masters his style _ calm, steady _ and rides like the champion he is,'' he said.
``They're warming up to him,'' said fan Tom Sabol, whose shirt was plastered with ``priority handling'' stickers issued by Armstrong's team sponsor: the U.S. Postal Service.
``How could they not?''
Sabol, from Philadelphia, has followed every stage with a bunch of rowdy friends. At the last stop, he said, townsfolk replayed Tour tapes at the local auditorium and cheered loudly when Armstrong led.
Armstrong has learned fluent French and tries harder to lighten up. Mainly, however, fans accept the fact he is busy enough trying to win the race.
``This is not theater, it's sport,'' Armstrong told Cycling International, one of France's countless magazines devoted to the subject. ``I believe in performance and the beauty of the race.''
A broad sampling suggests most French fans have come to respect his approach.
``Don't you listen to any badmouthing,'' said Jean Nustadt, who eavesdrops all day in his Paris taxi. ``He is tremendously loved in France. His courage is enormous. Enormous.''
Christophe Gilardi, who works at Banana Bikes on Boulevard John Kennedy in the southern city of Draguignan, was at Mont Ventoux, and he did not boo.
``Sure, you see some jealousy, and there's always suspicion of drugs,'' he said. ``But the truth is that he is very, very strong. His technique is almost perfect. He is amazing.''
Members of Armstrong's circle call the drug charges low and laughable background noise.
``He must be the most tested athlete in sports,'' said Nike's Scott MacEachern, a close friend as well as a sponsor. ``It's hard to believe in miracles. If you don't, you have to explain them somehow.''
MacEachern believes the miracle. Armstrong called him after being diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of survival.
``He was scared, but he immediately turned around, like a real fighter,'' MacEachern said. ``He did his own research and when he met with doctors, he was often the most knowledgeable guy in the room.''
Days after Armstrong finished chemotherapy and brain surgery, MacEachern went to visit. The house was locked, but he heard music in the garage.
``There he was, up in the saddle of a stationery bike, attacking like crazy,'' MacEachern said. ``This was when he was still sleeping 18 hours a day. I knew then that whether he lived or died, he would be spectacular.''
Alain Parent, a French physician, is indifferent to cycling but thinks Armstrong is spectacular enough to be a medical mystery.
``Who knows what effect all of that treatment had on him?'' he said, musing that somehow a chemical shift might have kicked his organism into a higher gear.
More likely, Armstrong's colleagues say, it is a simple case of mind over matter. When he recovered, his relaxed approach to training shifted to zealotry.
A day after winning the 2001 Tour de France, Armstrong flew to New York and vanished during his only unscheduled hour. Finally, someone found him. He had gone cycling by himself in Central Park.
``He just doesn't get tired of it,'' MacEachern concluded. ``In a race, he is focused on one thing only, and being around him raises the level of everyone. That's who he is. Lance just loves the stuff.''