ST. FLOUR, FRANCE — The French do not normally like having to rely on Americans to get them out of trouble.
But Lance Armstrong is not your average American.
A former cancer patient, he currently leads the Tour de France, the world's toughest bicycle race. And race organizers have welcomed the Texan rider with open arms as they struggle to rescue their event, a national institution that nearly collapsed last year amid a devastating drug scandal.
"The battle that Armstrong won against his illness is symbolic of the way that the Tour de France is emerging from its own battle against disappearance," says Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director. "If he wins, it will be highly symbolic of the combat he fought against death, and that we are fighting against doping."
Mr. Armstrong, leader of the US Postal Service team, stands a good chance of becoming the first American to win the Tour de France since Greg LeMond in 1990. Heading into the final leg of the three-week, 2,300-mile race From Paris to Pyrenees, US rider wows France
that will wind up in Paris July 25, Armstrong holds a commanding lead of more than seven minutes over his closest rivals. He's showing no sign of weakness ahead of two hard days of riding in the Pyrenees Mountains.
"I think the organizers want him to win," says Daniel Isaac, head of sponsorship for the tour's biggest sponsor, the Crdit Lyonnais bank. "He is an example."
Thirty months ago, he was undergoing chemotherapy, fighting for his life. A promising cycling career was in ruins, and his chances of ever getting back in the saddle seemed to be nil.
Too good to be true?
His dramatic comeback has struck a chord with the French public, for whom the Tour de France - raced every year since 1903 except during the world wars - is part of their national heritage.
"You have to take your hat off to him for what he's done," says Yves Bruchon, a cycling fan who spent a day of his vacation last week standing with his family by the side of a road in central France to watch the tour speed past. "I think it's great that he is winning."
But while tour organizers are promoting Armstrong's success as emblematic of a "renewed" tour, free from illegal performance-enhancing drugs, his remarkable success in setting record-breaking times has set tongues wagging among his fellow riders and in the press.
"Armstrong is very strong, too strong, incredibly strong," commented one journalist on French TV, the evening that the American rider won a punishing mountain stage in the Alps.
Armstrong flatly denies that he is using any illegal substances and laughs off suggestions that his cancer treatment included medication that could boost his performance now. But such allegations can hardly surprise him.
This time last year, the Tour de France was in tatters in the wake of revelations that many riders were regularly using illegal drugs to gain endurance. Police and judges were raiding riders' hotels at night, seizing drugs. The riders staged a sit-down strike in protest. One entire team was expelled from the race, and six others withdrew. Twelve riders and cycling officials still face judicial proceedings in France.
Against that background "one can understand that there are suspicions, it is normal" acknowledges Hein Verbruggen, president of cycling's governing body, the International Cycling Union. Nor were the suspicions allayed when last year's Tour de France winner, Marco Pantani, was ejected from an Italian race last month after a blood test.
The lingering doubts about how "clean" some riders are, however, do not seem to have spoiled the summer ritual for race spectators. Last Friday, as puffball clouds rode high in a blue sky, the residents of Langeac, a normally sleepy town on the hilly route, had lined the narrow sidewalks of their main street for hours to watch the riders and a colorful flotilla of support vehicles race by for a few thrilling seconds.
They were among the estimated 15 million people who will watch the race from the roadside this year, the largest live audience for any event in the world.
Critically, the tour's sponsors are also staying loyal and continuing to provide more than 60 per cent of the race's $40 million annual income. "We are giving the Tour de France a second chance," says Sophie Kamoun, a spokeswoman for Nike, which makes the yellow jersey traditionally worn by the tour leader. "We will see how things evolve."
"We have benefited from the tour's good image in the past," says Mr. Isaac, whose Crdit Lyonnais bank pays nearly $4 million a year to sponsor the yellow jersey. "We are ready to make a couple of years of sacrifice while the tour gets back on its feet."
But the doping problem still lurks in the background. "We can't be certain that a scandal won't drop on our heads," Isaac worries. "I have just one hope: that the rumors about Lance Armstrong are not true."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society