Tour de Lance
At the Arc de Triomphe, It's Divide and Conquer
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A07
PARIS, July 25 -- After three weeks, 2,107 miles of road and 10,000 Power Bars, the 147 cyclists of the Tour de France raced to the finish Sunday on one of the world's grandest boulevards. The Champs-Elysees was closed for the occasion, hung with French flags, its wide sidewalks filled from curb to cafe with people who began lining up early in the morning for prime viewing of the peloton, as the pack of racers is known.
At the top of this immense runway, the palatial Hotel de Crillon flew the flag of the Lone Star State in honor of Lance Armstrong, who now owns this particularly French event. The slim, combative Texan rode triumphantly into history with a record sixth consecutive win.
"Armstrong, the Absolute Sovereign," trumpeted a headline in Le Journal du Dimanche. But if his athletic achievement has entered into legend, Armstrong the man is still a divisive force in France.
Even the weather couldn't make up its mind whether to rain or shine on his parade Sunday, finally settling on a blazing sunbath. One heard more English than French along the glorious route leading to the Arc de Triomphe, where Armstrong was crowned. The American fans were easy to spot. They were the ones in U.S. Postal Service jerseys, in honor of Armstrong's team. They were the ones smeared in blue body paint or plastered in postal packing tape. They draped American flags over the barricades.
The French were more nuanced.
Nothing can happen in France without an argument, Tour included. This country thrives on debate. There were arguments against the glory of Armstrong's victory encompassing these ideas: The cloud of drug allegations, which -- though unproven -- have dogged the cyclist throughout the summer. The chilliness of Armstrong's responses -- in one television interview he said he didn't care about the drug rumors, but just wanted to win, then au revoir. His obsessive and infinitely calculated training methods -- one French newspaper described such training as "reducing the glorious incertitude of the sport." The complaint that victory had come as much through the collapse of Armstrong's rivals as through his own effort.
This Tour was essentially won more than a week before it ended, when Armstrong's chief competitors cracked on the way up La Mongie, a daunting peak in the Pyrenees. The next day, American rival Tyler Hamilton quit with an injured back, while much-feared foes Jan Ullrich and Roberto Heras lost so much time in their painful ascent that they were no longer in the running.
"We definitely expected more from them," said Armstrong lieutenant George Hincapie.
Armstrong's win will end the historical dominance of the revered European five-time winners: the Belgian Eddy Merckx, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.
In the race's second week, Veronique Geffroy traveled from Brittany with her family to watch a Tour stage in the west-central Limousin region. Early one morning, as she tried to get the attention of French cyclist Laurent Brochard for an autograph, she said she didn't feel Armstrong deserved to be placed on a higher plane than Merckx, who won legions of other grueling races in addition to his five Tour wins. "In comparison with the others who have won five times," she said, "we don't think Lance Armstrong is better."
Of course, if Armstrong heard a few boos along his path into the record books, he heard plenty of applause as well, from fans like Joe Potts of Fort Worth. Potts was following the Tour on orders of his wife, Kathy, a breast cancer survivor. During her illness, he said, they drew strength from Armstrong's own extraordinary experience beating testicular cancer several years ago. This year's Tour became a pilgrimage of gratitude, though Kathy Potts was too weak to make the trip.
Americans, it has been said, are obsessed with winning, but to some extent, who wins the Tour de France is immaterial to the French.
"The French don't especially like winners," said Daniel Mangeas, the Vin Scully of the Tour. Known as the Voice of the Tour de France, he has announced the race for 30 years. "They always put themselves on the side of the little guy."
For this country, which has hosted the world-renowned bike race for 101 years, the Tour is bigger than any one cyclist. After years of poor finishes, French riders have excelled in this year's Tour, prompting French commentators to trumpet a "renaissance" in French cycling. Richard Virenque won an unprecedented seventh "King of the Mountains" title, earned by the rider who most consistently leads the mountain attacks. Other French riders won individual stages. But the most passionately followed drama was that of 25-year-old Thomas Voeckler, the first Frenchman in 12 years to wear the yellow jersey -- borne by the race leader -- for an extended period of time. Before Armstrong took control of the race, Voeckler held on to the yellow jersey, and the headlines, for 10 days.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong greets fans on the Champs-Elysees after his victory.
(Christophe Ena -- AP)