Sans flair, Armstrong tries to warm French fans
COL DE L'ECHARASSON, FRANCE — Life at the top is hard for Lance Armstrong. As he races his way to an increasingly inevitable record sixth victory in the Tour de France, cycling's biggest star is finding that talent is no guarantee of popularity.
Alongside the toughest hill of Tuesday's stage, where Mr. Armstrong struggled his way back to the leader's yellow jersey, cheers mixed with some jeers from fans, who say he is just too good.
It's like that wherever he goes.
"He gets whistled at because he wins too often, I can't see any other reason," says Ivan Lombard, as he sits by the side of a mountain pass high in the Alps. "He's a great champion."
The mixed welcome Armstrong receives has little to do with his being American, fans and experts say. But his extraordinary dominance grates. After assuming command in Tuesday's 15th stage, Armstrong is positioned to claim victory at the Tour's Paris finish Sunday.
"People want a spectacle, they want a close race, suspense, and upsets," says Jean-Pierre Bidet, who covers Armstrong for L'Equipe. "For several years now, we've been bored."
In a country where cycling heroes have traditionally been close to their fans, Armstrong is a new kind of Tour de France champion. Determined and methodical, the US rider does not fit the mold of popular European stars.
His repeated success, though, is winning increasing admiration from French Tour fans, even if it is sometimes grudgingly given. So far this year, the Tour's postal service has delivered 90 letters to Armstrong, more than to any other of the 189 riders that started the race.
"He's getting more 'sympa,' " says Yves Besset, a market-store owner who came to watch the Tour Tuesday, using the French word meaning "nice" or "friendly."
"At the beginning, he was cold," he says. "Now he smiles more and seems more relaxed. He's making an effort."
A big part of that, say many fans, is Armstrong's effort to speak French, which earned its first fruits last year. Armstrong is not fluent in French, cycling's lingua franca, but he makes himself understood.
Still, he is not the kind of rider the French love. Here, fans prize imagination, daring, and flair. Richard Virenque, for example, a French climber who makes a habit of do-or-die break aways ahead of the pack for 100 miles at a time, is the most popular man on the Tour. Romance is not Armstrong's strong suit.
"He never hits the pedals except for a purpose," says Mr. Bidet of L'Equipe. "It is efficiency that he seeks, and if he attacks, it is in order to win, not to please the crowd. Everything is planned with one goal in mind: to win the Tour."
"He rides practically," wrote author and cycling fan Paul Fournel in Le Monde recently. "Panache is not his strong point. His business is not cycling, it's victory."
In America, where cycling is a minor sport, Armstrong nonetheless enjoys extraordinary popularity, with name recognition rivaling domestic stars such as Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods. His image, too, is overwhelmingly positive.
That, says Sunny Cade, who traveled this summer from her home in New Orleans to ride some of the Tour's stages, has as much to do with his personal history as his status as a champion.
Overcoming cancer to make a comeback in his sport, "the man has faced much greater odds than anyone else on the Tour," she points out while admiring the alpine view of cliffs and hairpin bends.
"When you think of the physical challenges he has risen above ... I'm absolutely a Lance supporter."
In France, fans focus on cycling itself, and recall a tradition of champions who emerged from poor backgrounds while staying close to the people. Armstrong, who emerges from his team bus only in the presence of bodyguards, does not draw on that tradition. He does not, for example, take part in winter races in northern France, where wind, snow, rain, and cobblestones bind fans close to their heroes.
The French also like losers, many observers point out. One of the most popular veteran riders in the country, Raymond Poulidor, never won a tour, coming in second three times to Jacques Anquetil. And Mr. Anquetil, too, was booed, recalls retired farmer André Dufour. "We like the little guy best."
Like many others on the roadside Tuesday, Mr. Dufour insists that Armstrong's US citizenship has nothing to do with how the French fans greet him. "Sport is sport, and politics is politics," he says. "We would prefer a French champion, obviously ... but it's nothing more than that."