Tour De France: French refuse to be charmed by Armstrong's historic Tour exploits

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The Independent Online

Whatever the global allure of its international footballers, or the prestige of the Olympics, for many - perhaps most - Frenchmen and women July remains the sporting month. The Tour de France is a source of enormous Gallic pride and consumes the country throughout its three weeks, as much a cultural phenomenon as a sporting event.

Whatever the global allure of its international footballers, or the prestige of the Olympics, for many - perhaps most - Frenchmen and women July remains the sporting month. The Tour de France is a source of enormous Gallic pride and consumes the country throughout its three weeks, as much a cultural phenomenon as a sporting event.

And there is nothing the French like better than a Tour hero, someone to place alongside the great names of the event's storied past, such as Jacques Anquetil, Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Which is why Lance Armstrong should be entitled to a monumental reception along the Champs-Elysées tomorrow when he becomes the first rider to win the Tour six times.

It is a reception he won't get. Armstrong is all but certain to win this year's Tour and claim his place in the pantheon, but France's response to him remains ambivalent. The 32-year-old Texan may be admired and respected. But liked? Not often. And loved? Never.

At the starts and finishes of every stage on this year's Tour, there have been some cheers when Armstrong appears on the podium, but they are muted. Equally audible are the boos and whistles from a small but determined group. It doesn't seem to matter that Armstrong has become the most successful Tour rider ever.

The Tour itself remains diplomatically silent on the issue, but the race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, has said: "I feel no huge sympathy for him as a person," even though he qualified that with: "But objectively, I cannot but admire his motivation."

And as for the riders, French star Richard Virenque stated flatly: "I admired Indurain more than I do Armstrong."

It might be assumed that there is a simple explanation for Armstrong's lack of popularity - the allegations, strenuously and frequently denied, that the illegal use of drugs have played a part in his incredible success. However the doping issue, while present in many fans' minds, is perhaps not the central one. After all, the Frenchman Virenque, who was at the centre of the drug-related Festina scandals, has been taken back into the collective bosom with no questions raised over his past.

So what is the reason? Certainly it's not because Armstrong is foreign, given that nearly 20 years have passed since the last French Tour winner, Hinault, and the French have had time enough to get used to the lack of home success.

"It's because he's made the race boring," says Jean-Pierre Bidet, of L'Equipe. "People come to a race to see who's going to win, not when they know it in advance. Armstrong takes everything for himself, crushes the opposition. It's not interesting.

"Last year when he had a few problems, became more human, then people felt more sympathy for him. But now we're back at square one again. Perhaps underlying that unpopularity is the fact he's American too, and people associate him with Texas and George Bush."

Armstrong remains too detached, Bidet adds, and too, well, American, even if the autograph signing sessions have grown notably longer this year and he now speaks French at the stage finishes after being recommended to do so by Leblanc. He even praises France: "My second favourite country after the United States, I love it here," he said after winning on Alpe D'Huez. Given that he moved to Gerona, in Spain, from his residence in Nice a few years back, that hardly seems credible.

Words are fine, but actions are another matter. All that is seen of Armstrong at most starts is a large blue bus with darkened windows, and when he does come out, two bodyguards are by his side. "That's an innovation in cycling - riders never had bodyguards before," says Bidet. A far cry from Indurain, who used to get to starts late because he hung out in the " village depart" in the mornings for too long.

Last year, the US Postal team's bikes were taken into the hotel rooms at night for fear of sabotage. In the team hotels theirs is the only squad that does not put up a list outside the lifts saying which room their riders are sleeping in.

Even when Armstrong is on the point of winning, the walls do not come down. In the Club Med hotel, US Postal were the only ones to have supper in a screened off part of a massive dining room - Armstrong it seems, cannot be seen eating. US Postal remain the most impermeable of teams in a sport which has always be characterised by its accessibility.

And as for Armstrong, his attitude is simple: "The Tour is not a popularity contest," he always says. To judge from how hard it's been for him to gain the hearts of the French public, that's probably just as well.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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