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US cyclist's win lends glow to embattled Tour de France

Floyd Landis made up an 8-minute deficit to capture victory in France's signature sporting event.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 2006



LA BAULE, FRANCE

An American won it, again.

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The "maillot jaune," the treasured yellow jersey of the Tour de France, went to Floyd Landis, a fresh-faced American farm boy who rode past the pain of a hip injury to win the 23-day race through the summer-scorched French countryside. He clinched the victory with a final sprint on Sunday up the Champs Elysées in Paris.

His performance and gee-whiz charm helped put the glow back into this year's Tour after its gloomy start, when nine racers were disqualified for suspected doping.

Mr. Landis captivated the French with his sheepish grins and a come-from-behind surge of power cycling that put him back in the running after losing eight minutes to the leader in one of the Tour's final stages.

"I'm a person who works hard and never gives up," Landis said last week, with the kind of self-effacement that has so charmed the cycling fans in France. "Otherwise, I'm just a human being."

The race, and certainly France, needed an inspirational story this year.

Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist and cancer survivor who won the Tour seven times in a row, retired last year. The doping investigations removed from the race several of the leading contenders for Armstrong's mantle. And France was still smarting from its ignominious loss in the World Cup soccer final, after its team captain, Zinedine Zidane, knocked down an Italian opponent with a deliberate head butt.

In the end, the Tour did not disappoint. It provided thrills, suspense, and, to all appearances, examples of good sportsmanship. More important, for many people, this year's race did nothing to further tarnish the world of cycling – and may even have redeemed its image as the one French activity that truly embodies liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The Tour de France, now in its 93rd year, holds pride of place in the hearts of the French, whether one is sportif or not. There are plenty of people in France who have been watching the Tour de France, or following it daily on the radio, since they were kids. It is one of the rites of French summers, like month-long vacations and family reunions in the countryside.

The uninitiated may find it hard to put aside the obvious commercial aspects of the race, with its in-your-face corporate sponsorships, its carnival atmosphere, and scandals over use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Nevertheless, for many people here, the Tour de France has class. They are perfectly ready to concede that it has been sullied by the recent doping accusations. But they also see it as a lyrical endurance test pitting man against nature, where the solitary cyclist has to use heart and mind to deal with the curves that the course throws at him. And anybody that can ride a bike can identify with it.

"Cycling is the most democratic of activities," says Marie Anne Kerak, a retired government worker living in La Baule, a French resort town on the Brittany coast. "When we were young, the idea of hopping on a bike and going touring was the ultimate kind of freedom."

In 1936, she added, when the Popular Front government gave all French workers guaranteed paid vacations, all of France seemed to celebrate by hopping on bicycles and touring the country. And biking remains popular. The streets of La Baule, around Mrs. Kerak's apartment, were crowded with cyclists this weekend. They took up more than their appointed lane on the roads in some places, forcing cars to give way.

That seemed normal to Mrs. Kerak's husband, Antoine, at least on the final day of the Tour de France.

"The Tour is completely democratic in the sense that everyone starts out equal," says Mr. Kerak, a retired engineer who boasts that he has never missed a Tour de France for as long as it's been televised. He says it is the race that counts for him – and that he has never been so chauvinistic as to root for a French cycling team over any other.

"I don't mind if an American wins," he says.

"The Tour is French, anyway. It is about intelligence. It's not about brutality or violence. It is elegant."

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