THE GREAT Tour de France bicycle race, an event that usually preoccupies much of Europe for the better part of July, began this month under the darkest clouds in its long history. A scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs had torn apart last year's Tour. Riders and whole teams were implicated, some ejected, and by the time this year's event rolled around, there was widespread cynicism and suspicion about the sport.

Onto this scene rode a Texan with a name that might have been invented in 1930s Hollywood: Lance Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong isn't new to European cycling; he was seen as an up-and-coming star in the early '90s. But in 1996 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer -- a particularly virulent case that affected his lungs and brain. His team dropped him after seeing his ravaged condition. Mr. Armstrong persevered, though, going out on his bike 30 to 50 miles a day in the intervals between rounds of chemotherapy and, once his treatment was ended, steadily working his way back into the sport with the American team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service.

No one expected much from him in the Tour, however -- certainly not that he would take the lead a few days into the race, expand it during the grueling mountain stages and now be headed for Paris with a great likelihood of winning the race, which concludes tomorrow. Mr. Armstrong says his illness left him both lighter (not a bad thing for a bike racer) and mentally stronger. His doctor calls him simply "a great model for everything that's good in sports and in medicine."

Which is all very well, but not enough to keep some French papers from suggesting -- without evidence -- that Mr. Armstrong must be taking something to be able to perform so well. This week one of them reported a drug test had found minute traces of corticosteroids in his system. The cycling federation promptly reported that they came from a cream he was authorized to use for a skin allergy. Nevertheless, if Mr. Armstrong wins this Sunday, there will undoubtedly be a number of European onlookers who will regard his feat as a glorious triumph for the indomitable human spirit, provided it isn't a perfidious and fiendishly clever deception.