American Lance Armstrong powered his way to another time trial win in the penultimate stage of the Tour de France today, paving the way for his moment of glory Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where the former cancer patient is almost certain to finish as the overall winner of the world's most famous bicycle race.
"This isn't Hollywood and it's not Disney," the remarkably relaxed champion-to-be said today after his victory, which extended his overall lead to 7 minutes 37 seconds. "It's a true story."
But even Hollywood would be hard-pressed to match the sheer drama of Armstrong's saga: A man who rose from his deathbed and then found the strength and spirit to dominate one of the most grueling contests in all sport.
"I think the illness was good for me," the 27-year-old Texan said today, recalling the months of surgery and chemotherapy that ended barely two years ago. "It gave me . . . new perspective and a whole new list of priorities."
And it gave him an unconquerable determination to win the Tour as a tribute to "the cancer community -- the doctors, nurses, patients, families, the survivors, and the people who didn't make it."
You might think that the French press would be delighted with Armstrong's inspiring performance in this country's greatest sporting event -- particularly because the legendary race was so badly tainted last year with doping scandals. But ever since Armstrong took the yellow jersey for good two weeks ago, the French media, and some French riders, have subjected him to repeated accusations of cheating. With no evidence -- except his amazing performance, both on flat-track time trials and over the mountains -- they have suggested in countless ways that he must be taking illegal drugs, just as the French and Italian stars did last year.
One low-ranking French competitor, writing a Tour diary for a Paris newspaper, opined that Armstrong's power in the mountains seemed impossible without the help of drugs. The next day, the same rider wrote of his amazement when the man in the yellow jersey dropped back to the tail end of the pack long enough to make a face-to-face denial.
The rumor-mongering got so bad that the International Cycling Union broke its own rules of confidentiality to report that Armstrong had passed every drug test he was given during the Tour. Undeterred, the national sports newspaper L'Equipe today compared the leader to the "rocket-powered" American astronaut, Neil Armstrong. The paper asked, "Does he represent a new era of cycling, or just a return to old methods?
One reason the French press has been so grouchy is that this month has been disastrous for French sports.
Last year, the French soccer team won the World Cup, right here in France. This month, that glorious victory was tarnished when the organizing committee was fined for cheating on ticket allocations; somehow, a group of French travel agents ended up with more World Cup tickets than anybody else. Then last week, French golfer Jean Van De Velde blew a three-shot lead on the final hole and lost the British Open.
And in bike racing, the national passion, France's performance has been a national disgrace. French riders have not won a single stage of this year's Tour de France -- the first such shutout since 1926. The French press instead has been forced to report on stage wins by their arch rivals (headline in today's Le Parisien: "Italie 7 - France 0"), and of course on the relentless force of the Texas titan, Lance Armstrong.
The only Frenchman to do well this year is the fans' favorite, Richard Virenque, whose climbing skills won him the "King of the Mountain" trophy. But the cycling establishment is embarrassed by that, because Virenque was wrapped up in last year's doping scandals.
The locals also may be miffed because Armstrong has not concealed his fury at the prestigious French racing team Cofidis. Armstrong was a million-dollar Cofidis rider until 1997, when the team called to fire him while he was hospitalized.
"We all know the team that didn't believe in me," Armstrong said today. "They were on my mind a lot these last three weeks."
Armstrong got some particularly sweet revenge today when his current squad, the U.S. Postal Service, finished first as a team in the 19th stage of the tour, a one-racer-at-a-time sprint across 35 miles of sun-splashed green farmland. Armstrong finished first of all the 141 riders who have survived the 2,200 miles the race has covered so far. His American teammate, Tyler Hamilton, finished third to assure U.S. Postal the day's team win.
Armstrong's winning individual time Friday was 1 hour 8 minutes 17 seconds. Overall, Alex Zulle of Switzerland is the second-place rider, and Armstrong has a 10-minute 26-second lead over third-place Fernando Escartin of Spain.
Barring catastrophe, that should be more than enough to give Armstrong a golden experience when Sunday's final stage ends at the heart of Paris.
"Riding down the Champs-Elysees with the yellow jersey, that will be a very special moment," the leader said today. "I never expected to win the Tour de France."