Tour de Lance

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."

But not to the French, and not to a few fellow critics scattered around the world. To the cynics, Armstrong is a drug cheat, despite his impeccably clean tests and his repeated defense that "the only thing I'm on is my bike."

The Armstrongs are expecting twins in December. Boys? Girls? One of each? Doesn't matter. I don't know about you, but I hope they grow up to be bicycle racers, that they refuse to say bonjour and that they determine to kick serious ass in the Alps. With a little luck, they might even get a chance to run Jerry Lewis over on the outskirts of Paris.

Gary Barnett blamed everyone but the water boy and the City of Boulder's foreign-policy advisors for that embarrassing August 26 loss to Fresno State, but Colorado's head football coach can breathe easier now. First, his Golden Buffaloes bashed rival Colorado State 41-14 Saturday afternoon at Denver's Who-Gives-a-Damn-What-It's-Called? Field. Then, the disrespected Fresno State Bulldogs spanked another supposedly big-deal team Sunday night, beating tenth-ranked Oregon State 44-24. Obviously, the 'Dogs have a lot more bite than Barnett and the Buffs assumed. CSU better watch out when it hosts the Fresnoids on October 13, in Fort Collins.

Meanwhile, back at Who-Gives-a-Damn?, everybody in the place got a nice new cup holder Saturday -- even the unwashed multitudes in the cheap seats. Good thing, too. Because despite the best efforts of the authorities -- whoever they are -- to keep the peasants from wetting their whistles while the gentry in the luxury boxes were permitted to booze, invention once more overwhelmed rule. Anyone with a pair of binoculars, a high perch in the stadium and a familiarity with liquor labels knows who won the struggle for equal rights in the student sections: Jim Beam and Captain Morgan.

In fact, happy hour lasted from kickoff to final gun as sun-baked students measured, mixed and mingled -- surreptitiously and expertly. Some of these kids may have their hands full in chemistry class, but they get straight As in Smuggling 101. Good for them. They had a cocktail or two in the mid-80s sunshine, and there wasn't a speck of trouble.

Who was disappointed? By game's end, there were more Denver cops on the edges of the playing field than there were CSU students in the stands -- cops with nothing to do. Beneath the stadium, there were more cops on horses, cops tethered to police dogs, cops with thumbs hooked in their belts, rocking on their heels. All with nothing to do. The CU pep band marched out of the place on a cloud of euphoria; when the drums suddenly kicked in, half a dozen cops found themselves startled by the noise. Given the mace-fest Denver police indulged in following 1999's CSU victory (same score: 41-14), you half expected the boys in blue to start teargassing the bugle section.

In the end, all 75,022 in attendance got home unpoisoned this year -- if you don't count the morning-after retribution exacted by Johnny Walker and company.


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