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The other afternoon in the Tour de France, Jan Ullrich, quite recently considered Lance Armstrong’s sole possible rival, crossed the stage finishing line blotchy-faced, looking, as one observer said, “as if he’d swallowed a frog”. Meanwhile Armstrong sailed in looking as if he’d been playing golf, and minutes later gave a jocular interview partly in French, before disappearing among bodyguards.
The image encapsulated everything “the French” supposedly dislike about Armstrong. He doesn’t suffer as Tour riders should. He is too good, robbing the Tour of the useful element of suspense. Armstrong is an American machine trampling on French tradition, the contemporary metaphor being obvious. For all these reasons, or so the consensus goes, “the French” despise him.
In fact, their relationship with him is better described as love-hate. And as he enters the final week of his cycling career, poised to clinch his seventh consecutive Tour on the Champs d’Elysées on Sunday week, the hate is evaporating.
It’s true that over the years some spectators have booed, spat at him, and accused him of being “dopé” – drugged – even though Armstrong passes all his drugs tests and denies taking drugs. But check the numbers. After one stage on Mont Ventoux, Armstrong pointed out that perhaps three spectators out of 100,000 had abused him. “Do you have a calculator?” he asked. And the abusers are condemned by the French press – “imbeciles”, La Dépêche du Midi calls them. Besides, other cyclists attract cries of “dopé!” too.
“I think the perception that the relationship between myself and the entire French public is strained and heated and hateful is absolutely incorrect,” Armstrong said this year. Many French fans agree, speaking of a “silent majority” of Armstrong supporters. You even get Frenchies by the roadside waving American flags, or, probably for a mixture of motives, kissing American supporters.
The idea that “the French media” hates Armstrong is equally unsubtle. Certainly some serious newspapers bang on about drugs. However, few French people read serious newspapers. Most inform themselves from television, and France 2, the official broadcaster, is keen to present the Tour’s main character as an untainted genius.
Yet Armstrong obsesses about the French press. Partly this is because he obsesses about all media. When a cycling website published a fairly positive article about him, he immediately e-mailed the editor in Australia to complain about one or two critical lines. That was on a new year’s day. However, he is particularly obsessed with the French press and public.
He could content himself with being popular in the US, where he and Muhammad Ali recently outpolled all other athletes in the vote for greatest American ever. But Armstrong wants French fans to respect him, because he respects them. He knows his appeal in the US resides mainly in the story of his victory over cancer. Though some Americans are sophisticated cycling fans, most wouldn’t know a mass sprint from a mountain stage. French fans, by contrast, understand Armstrong’s craftsmanship. And they are as steeped as he is in the Tour‘s traditions. His own epiphany came, he said, in 1995 when all the riders rode and finished a mountain stage together to honour his team-mate Fabio Casartelli, killed the day before.
Wooing the French is his final battle, given that winning this Tour appears a cakewalk. In March he even seemed to endorse Paris’s Olympic bid, telling a French reporter it was “excellent”, while New York’s had “some problems”. This caused a kerfuffle back home. The New York Post labelled him “the axle of weasel”, while John Gibson, of Fox Television, backed Armstrong’s choice only because the Olympics would attract terrorists. “Let the whack jobs go to Paris in 2012,” argued Gibson. “New York really doesn’t need more of that, and Paris hasn’t had quite enough of it as far as I’m concerned . . . They like all those terrorists anyway.”
Shortly afterwards, the French reporter who had written the initial article was surprised to receive a phone call from Armstrong himself. “Let’s do another interview,” he said, and then raved about New York as if he were Frank Sinatra.
He continues to woo France, even trying to give interviews on French television in French, though the attempt seldom lasts even a minute. His limited French is a particular problem for Armstrong, an articulate man who unlike many sportsmen expresses himself in words rather than gestures.
But if he has won French respect, he can never be adored here as he is in the US. That is because his astonishing life story – beating cancer to become the greatest cyclist ever – lacks appeal to Europeans. The French don’t buy American notions of triumphing through willpower, of good overcoming evil, of winners never quitting, of the individual life as epic struggle. You see it in the sales of Armstrong’s inspirational book, It’s Not About the Bike: ranked 104th on amazon.com, and 22,576th in French translation on amazon.fr.
On the Champs d’Elysées next weekend, Armstrong will hear mostly applause. To improve on that, he’d have to climb into each French person’s mind and alter the mechanism.