Armstrong rides rough over popular theory

Andrew Longmore says safety and drugs are still Tour issues

Barring inconceivable misfortune or a moment of overwhelming stupidity, Lance Armstrong will cycle down the Champs Elysées this afternoon in the yellow jersey, the first rider to defend his Tour de France title since Miguel Indurain, the great Spaniard who won the last of his five successive Tours in 1995. Armstrong's emphatic victory in the time trial on Friday sealed his domination of a race which was billed as the most competitive for a decade.

Barring inconceivable misfortune or a moment of overwhelming stupidity, Lance Armstrong will cycle down the Champs Elysées this afternoon in the yellow jersey, the first rider to defend his Tour de France title since Miguel Indurain, the great Spaniard who won the last of his five successive Tours in 1995. Armstrong's emphatic victory in the time trial on Friday sealed his domination of a race which was billed as the most competitive for a decade.

In truth, once the American had shimmied up the Hautacam - "like an aeroplane" in the words of Richard Virenque - in the first of the mountain stages, the rest of a field which included two other Tour champions, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, were racing for the secondary places on the podium today in Paris. In his psychological domination of the race, Armstrong has recalled the days of Indurain; in the aggressive manner of his win, fashioned on the climbs as well as the set-pieces, the champion has been in a different league.

The riders will arrive in Paris this morning on the Orient Express and, for the first time, the final stage will be ridden entirely within the municipal borders of the city, from the Place de Varsovie to the Place de la Nation along the banks of the Seine with the traditional finish on the Champs Elysées. In the symbolic language of the Tour, the 21st stage round the most ancient of cities provides a neat counterpoint to the prologue, exactly three weeks ago, which accentuated the modern landscape of Futuroscope and, coincidentally, produced the face of the future in 23-year-old David Millar.

The British rider's surprise prologue victory gave the 87th Tour a refreshing start and might have propelled cycling in these shores to new heights of popularity had Channel 4 not chosen this year to reschedule its highlights programme in a crass betrayal of its million or so Tour regulars. Faced with a bewildering variety of timings, from 5.30pm to 12.55am, many viewers simply gave up. But completing his first Tour, as he should today, will be as significant an achievement for Millar as ending his first day on the race in the yellow jersey.

The organisers of the Tour too have much to contemplate. Armstrong, chippy, aloof and aggressive, is not their ideal champion, but they might have to endure him for a few years yet. His response to the accusation of Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director, that he should learn to speak more French revealed old tensions. Armstrong said simply that he did not care. "The Tour is not a popularity contest," he added. The Tour has rightly been reluctant to shed its national identity while, at the same time, profiting hugely from the conscious development of an international image. The best way to ensure a champion who speaks fluent French is to have a French champion, but with Virenque the most prominent of the home riders there is no sign of salvation on the horizon.

What should concern the organisers more is the death of a 12-year-old boy on the roads between Avignon and Draguignan, fatally hit by a vehicle in the Caravan Publicitaire which was trying to avoid another overtaking car. There are accidents on every Tour, in the past mostly unpublicised, but neither the press nor the public is so subservient to the spirit of the Tour since the drug revelations of 1998 opened the lid on reality and the French authorities might well have to tackle the increasing dangers posed by the growing high-speed cavalcade of press and publicity cars.

Whether the issue of drug-taking has been tackled at source or simply sent underground once again is another matter for debate. The claim by Giorgio Squinzi, head of the Mapei team, that "without doping it's impossible to be anywhere in the top five in the Tour" will be officially viewed as sour grapes from a team which has drastically underperformed and, unofficially, with a certain degree of resignation. The organisers lost its race to introduce a urine-based EPO test in time for the start of this Tour, but samples have been taken from prominent riders and frozen for analysis later in the season when the radical new test has been fully validated.

Rumours of a "two-speed" Tour, so rampant in 1999, have refused to disappear, though the widespread innuendo which dogged a proper acknowledgement of Armstrong's achievement last year was largely absent this year. Average stage speeds have stayed resolutely high and the fact that 70 per cent of the peloton were in danger of being timed out at the end of the stage over the Col de Galibier will be taken in some quarters as proof that if the systematic drug culture of the past has been eradicated, some riders are still working to different rules.

The EPO test can only detect the presence of EPO, which enhances the development of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the body, in a rider at any given moment, not over an extended period of time. For a definitive guide to performance enhancement the controllers will have to rely on detailed charting of riders' haematocrit levels over a whole career and on the more efficientenforcement of random out-ofseason testing. The further unsettling factor is that EPO is no longer considered the chic drug of choice; artificial haemoglobins, developed for genuine medical use, are already being widely adapted for sporting purposes in Italy, according to Sandro Donati, a well-respected Italian coach and official.

For British cycling fans, Millar's graduation to Tour contender maintains the interest generated by Chris Boardman. Boardman's inability to recover from arduous stages over a three-week race severely limited his contribution to the Tour and hastened his retirement at the end of this season. Before he goes, though, Boardman will attempt to break Eddy Merckx's hour record of 49.4km, the last to be set on a conventional road bike using conventional equipment. Boardman used the extended - and now banned - "superman" riding position to set the record of 56.3km. A special "normal" bike, tubular-framed and old-fashioned, is being built for the attempt, which is tentatively scheduled for the world track championships in Manchester in October. "It's an excellent chance for me to end my career by bringing cycling back to being just about athletes not equipment," Boardman said.

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