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Tour de Lance

While the French fry, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong continues to impress the rest of the globe.

There are so many reasons to detest the French that it's hard to choose the best ones. Their capitulation to Hitler during World War II holds up pretty well, as does their icy disdain for anyone with the nerve to be from another country. As movie director Billy Wilder once pointed out, French money falls apart, but you can't tear the local toilet paper. France pretends America was the only country to screw up in Vietnam, and in recent decades, French academics have invented enough crackpot literary theories to wring the joy out of reading. The French language police have undertaken a campaign to rid the mother tongue of foreign impurities: Say "weekend" in Paris, and you might spend the weekend in jail. Sniffy French chefs stay busy barring Chinese spices from their kitchens, and McDonald's hamburgers are considered a scourge equal to bubonic plague or the Cadillac Eldorado.

The French also hate Lance Armstrong. More than a month after his latest triumph on their home field, they're still sniping at him, attacking his integrity.

At first look, this latest manifestation of French arrogance seems peculiar, even for France. That country has always been a wellspring of rationalist political thought, so the idea that a bicycle racer who got off his deathbed to win three straight Tours de France is worthy of contempt seems utterly surreal. The Tour is generally considered the world's most grueling sporting event, a three-week exercise in sheer masochism. For a young athlete who in 1996 nearly died of testicular and brain cancer to make the kind of comeback he did is not just extraordinary, it's miraculous. In most of the world, Lance Armstrong is regarded not only as an inspiration, but as the best distance bicyclist in the saddle.

But not in France. In France, Armstrong is seen as unfriendly and brash. In France (and a few other odd climes), Armstrong is seen as a cheater stuffed full of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. In France, Armstrong is seen as unbearably ...American.

Little matter that this poor boy from Plano, Texas, and his wife have made an effort to study the French language so they can converse with their ungrateful hosts on their own terms. Little matter that Armstrong has never come up dirty in any drug test -- something most French riders cannot claim. Little matter that he signs autographs by the hour and devotes his hard-won life to other cancer victims. The French -- especially the French press -- persist in damning him by innuendo and indicting him by association. A lesser human being would have, by now, told France to stick its blanquette de veau up its butt on the Champs-Elysees, draped his yellow jersey over his shoulder and headed off to the big races in Spain and Italy. But not Lance. Now age thirty and gloriously alive, he will try to win a fourth Tour de France next July.

With that, he would surpass another three-time American winner, Greg LeMond, and launch himself into bike racing's pantheon with the Tour's five-time champions: Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, and Miguel Indurain of Spain.

Some say Armstrong is already there. But not the French. In vicious editorials and poisonous sports columns, the French complain that Armstrong trains solely for the Tour while ignoring bicycle racing's other major events. They say he's doping. They say he's an alien who doesn't really understand their purely European sport. They call him second-rate.

The real reason the French hate Lance Armstrong, of course, is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in sixteen years, a wound to the national pride that shows no sign of healing. Since Hinault rode to his fifth and final victory in 1985's 22-stage, 2,000-miles-plus race, Spain's Indurain won his five tours, LeMond and Armstrong combined for six, and the remaining six went to riders from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Germany. In the last four years, French cyclists have moved like virtual escargots. None has even managed a top-three finish.

As for the time-honored notions of French loyalty and French élan, consider this: Armstrong's team, sponsored by the United States Postal Service, wouldn't even have him on the roster were it not for some French chicanery. By 1996, Armstrong had become the number-one-ranked cyclist in the world, signed a lucrative two-year contract with France's Cofidis racing team, and built a new house in Austin, Texas. Then, in October 1996, he learned he had cancer. One of his testicles had grown to the size of a lemon, and the disease had spread ominously. Armstrong underwent three brain surgeries, and even his coach braced for the worst when doctors gave him a fifty-fifty shot at survival. In the midst of four cycles of chemotherapy, at Armstrong's lowest ebb, the Cofidis team cut his salary by 80 percent. A year later, they demanded he take a physical at his own expense, then dropped him from the team altogether. So much for Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. Armstrong signed with the USPS, and the rest is American history.

Despite the painful physical demands of bicycle racing, Armstrong says he will never suffer out on the course as much as he did in the hospital. The sport is secondary to him now; what he calls "the obligation of the cure" is his priority. As he struggled to the mountain summit at L'Alpe d'Huez this July, he said he was driven on by the thought of his fellow cancer victims: "They see me and say, 'That guy's one of us,' and that means everything to me."

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