Behold the conquering hero, again. Let the race begin! And let's forget the last few years.
The return of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong to the world's premier cycling event has given a fresh start to what has become known here as the "Tour de Farce" for its annual doping scandals. Mr. Armstrong, as seen here, offers a needed new story line, despite his own rocky story line with the French.
This Saturday, the star from Texas lines up in Monaco with 20 teams of nine cyclists for a 10-mile contra-de-montre – a timed sprint. It's Day 1 of the 106th Tour, which ends in Paris July 26. Armstrong has been gone three years; his last Tour was 2005, when he won an unprecedented seventh consecutive victory.
After that, the Tour leader boards became a repository of doping charges and ejections. While great cyclists are famed for "cheating the wind," Tour officials found they were cheating a lot more than that.
Whether Armstrong – long the subject of intense public and official scrutiny over possible doping, but never proven guilty – can win an eighth yellow jersey is in some ways seen as immaterial here. The excitement over the very possibility is what the Tour de France franchise relishes.
French media compare the 37-year-old cyclist with an aging Terminator or an Indiana Jones. "Armstrong's eighth episode ... is better than a Star Wars sequel," says Florian Egly of France 24 sports, slightly tongue-in-cheek. "There's nothing else in July anyway."
Armstrong: I'm here to win, but it'll be tough
Armstrong himself, like a cycler negotiating mountain switchbacks, is expertly ramping expectations up – and down.
Up: "I'm doing this Tour to win, not just to be there," he said in Aspen last week. Down: "Now it's 2009, not 2004.... It's not going to be easy to win. In December and January, I thought it would be easier," he said this week while in the French Alps.
But for the Tour de France, it is all good. This week, the debate here is over the Astana team. Astana is considered the favorite, not only because Armstrong joined it last September, but because it includes the young Spaniard Alberto Contador, who is now regarded as No. 1 in the world after recent wins in the Italian and Spanish tours, and in the 2007 Tour de France.
Armstrong and Mr. Contador are winter and spring; Brett Favre and Matt Ryan. They don't have a relationship, yet. So how the Astana team dynamics play out in an event where winning requires support and assistance of team members, is the talk of French sports.
French still skeptical
Of course, the French aren't entirely buying a media spoon-fed Armstrong bonanza. He's a guy who piquantly criticized the French national soccer team and lashed out against top French sports magazine L'Equipe, which in 2005 – citing evidence from a French antidoping lab – published still-unproven charges that Armstrong had used the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin (EPO) to win in 1999.
There's cynicism over the fact that L'Equipe, owned by a family with financial stakes in the Tour, is now among the biggest cheerleader for the Texan and the heroic Return of the King narrative.
In fact, in the past three years, the biggest Tour question became not "who is winning?" but "who got caught doping?" The disillusionment is palpable.
Winner Floyd Landis, an American, was later disqualified for using synthetic testosterone – a charge he spent $2 million contesting in a bitterly fought case.
In 2007, everything went further sideways: Germany's two public TV stations quit covering the race completely – at no insignficant cost to themselves – after the first of three riders tested positive for banned drugs.
The leader Michael Rasmussen was booed, then tossed out by his team mid-Tour for missing random drug tests in the runup to the race. Last year was a nadir: Ricardo Ricco, a little-known Italian, began to respark interest by winning two major mountain stages. He then tested positive for EPO on July 17; his whole team voluntarily withdrew as a result.
As part of his comeback campaign, Armstrong had promised to undergo a private drug-testing regimen for his skeptics, to be run by renowned antidoping scientist Don Catlin – the results of which would be published online for all to see. Five months after the two announced the program at Armstrong's September 2008 press conference, the two parted ways, citing cost and logistical complications. Armstrong is still tested under Astana's program, in addition to the sport's regular testing.
The route for this year's Tour
An informal web poll in Le Figaro has 4 of 5 respondents saying the Tour isn't credible anymore. Still, everyone plans to watch – or at least that's the mood in Paris.
On July 25, the penultimate day, they face an especially difficult 108-mile stage, starting at Montelimar (altitude 328 feet) and rising throughout the day to the top of Mont Ventoux, at 6,273 feet. The ride is considered hot, bleak, and a place that may separate the final pack. The last day, July 26, ends at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
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