Cheers And Jeers?

Tour De France

Will French Fans Embrace Or Lambaste Armstrong?

July 03, 2009|By Chuck Culpepper | Chuck Culpepper,Tribune Newspapers

Lance Armstrong's return to the race that made him a superstar reintroduces one of the touchier cases of fan-athlete rapport, the occasionally prickly interplay between the cyclist who once dominated a revered 106-year-old race in a foreign country and the citizens of the country with the revered 106-year-old race.

As Tour de France participants and oglers gathered in Monaco, fans reportedly cheered Armstrong while Armstrong told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that he had seen "thousands" of supportive French fans as he made pre-race preparations in the Alps.

Such a scenario clashes with a widely accepted image of Armstrong as unpopular in France, the country of 60 million where Armstrong won seven Tours de France and a reputation for a corporate coldness.

It's a relationship that coursed from 1999 to 2005 and beyond through frosty early days punctuated by his inability to speak French, through a defrosting in later days as he strained to win their hearts, through some spill-over of disgruntlement from the Iraq war, and then, after the seven years had finished, through a report by the sports daily L'Equipe in 2005 that some of Armstrong's urine samples from 1999 contained the banned drug EPO (before a Dutch report cleared Armstrong because of improper handling and testing).

"It's complicated," said Patrick Mignon, a sociologist at the Institute for Sport and Physical Education.

In a poll published Thursday in L'Equipe, which asked whether respondents felt "bothered" by Armstrong's presence, 72 percent replied non while 27 percent answered oui. Among those describing themselves as Tour de France enthusiasts, the numbers shifted to 58 percent for no and 42 percent for yes.

Asked whether Armstrong's presence increased their interest in the race, 91 percent of general fans replied that it did not, while 80 percent of ardent cycling fans answered likewise. Fifty-five percent of general respondents thought Armstrong could win, while 44 percent felt he could not.

Around the country, it's possible to run across a waiter in Nice on the Mediterranean who wears a yellow Armstrong bracelet, claims to belong to a diligent cycling club, expresses devout admiration for the rider's capabilities and says he can't wait for the return. It's also possible to find a leader of a cycling club in Paris who states the return troubles him because, well, he takes pains to say he's sorry, but he does not consider Armstrong clean.

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