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 quintessentially 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.
The Tour de France suits what might be called the "cafe lifestyle" of France. The slender cyclists ride at a clip that would leave the rest of us heaving in the dust, but watching their progress on TV is a leisurely affair. Hours of footage are broadcast each day. The Tour, in which little can happen for hours besides the gradual exhaustion of many and the hardening resolve of a few, has little in common with the American taste for spectacle, with the hunger for celebrity humiliation on reality TV, or with a broad-shouldered conception of masculinity.
Throughout its three week-run, the Tour blocks roads, reroutes traffic, interrupts commerce, pulls police off their beats and onto road-guarding duty, and generally gets in the way of daily life. For fans, however, it becomes daily life, an event that supersedes all other activities, even business. I found this out atop the ski resort of Alpe d'Huez, the scene of a long-anticipated "race against the clock" time trial. This was also the spot where the battery of my rented Renault chose to die. With no electrical power, I couldn't even pop the hood, since my remote-entry key -- a newfangled thing shaped like a credit card -- wouldn't function.
I finally located an open repair shop, a dark, greasy cave save for the glow of a large high-definition TV. Around it were gathered two mechanics and a young boy, watching the race whose finish line was a few blocks away. Breathlessly, I explained my problem. Scarcely lifting his eyes from the screen, one of the men mildly assured me he would help me out if I came back in two hours, when the race was over.
In France, cycling has always been considered the sport of the poor. Old-timers affectionately dub it la petite reine ("the little queen"), a utilitarian bicycle being something of a solace for the underclasses lacking more royal means. The Tour has grown up as the common man's Super Bowl. No ticket is needed to watch the pros go by; you simply stake out a spot along the course route. Spectators stand behind barriers only at the starting lines, finish lines and at certain points where intermediate sprints are held. Otherwise, you can get as close to the speeding cyclists as your conscience and nerve allow. The French respond to such freedom with remarkable self-regulation. Instances of fan interference are relatively rare (though last year Armstrong crashed during a mountain ascent after his handlebars got tangled in a fan's plastic bag).
The event's myriad inconveniences don't stop the French from showing up. Roads may close early in the day on the mountain routes, but fans who arrive later park at the foot of the climb and hike the rest of the way, often for miles. Others zigzag up the road on bikes -- men, women, old, young.
Families make a day of the eternal wait for the blur of the peloton. But these are no rowdy tailgate parties; even on the most unaccommodating roads, the gatherings are largely civilized affairs. Folks station folding picnic tables alongside the ravines, set out wine, baguettes and full meals as if dining on a terrace. They recline in lawn chairs in the shade of their RVs or beneath beach umbrellas, listening to the race reports on their car radios. They read books and newspapers.
The athletes themselves are astonishingly accessible. Many could be seen signing autographs and chatting with folks behind the barriers before the race started each day. After they cross the finish line, they pass right through the crowds on their way to their team cars. Some even strip off their uniforms on the sidewalks.
As the Tour ended on the Champs-Elysees, the same phenomenon took place. The grand cobblestone square in front of the Hotel de Crillon became at once a locker room and a lobby. Having just completed the longest race in the world, the cyclists hoisted their own bikes over the barriers, greeted friends and changed out of sweaty spandex. There was Tyler Hamilton, looking out of place in jeans and a button-down shirt, meeting up with his Phonak teammates.
Armstrong was there, too, having come around the back way after his victory lap, and now he needed to get back onto the Champs-Elysees. He clicked past in his cycling shoes, and fans helped him lift his multi-thousand-dollar bike over the barricade. Climbing over after it, Armstrong nearly tripped and was set upright by one of his teammates. A roar went up as he sped off toward the podium.
Will the French ever accept Armstrong as a champion of the caliber as their heroes Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx?
"Ah, for that," said Mangeas, the veteran commentator, "he'll have to win a seventh Tour."