The French haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years. Eurodisney Paris is still standing, all their best actors end up speaking English in Hollywood and even Les Bleus, France’s once unbeatable football team, were hammered by lowly Senegal (a colony, no less) during the last World Cup. Then there’s the small matter that a Frenchman hasn’t won the Tour De France since 1985. And nothing makes the French choke on their pommes frites more than reminding them about that.
It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated just how much “Le Tour” means to France. It goes far beyond America’s Field of Dreams romance with baseball or Canada’s obsession with ice hockey. Because the Tour De France is France. Sure, on paper it’s a race, but in reality it’s a celebration of the country’s geography, history, and national character. The Alps and Pyrenees are as much the race’s stars as the riders. The villages are its stadiums. Without the cheering millions lining the streets, the riders wouldn’t be conquering heroes; they’d just be a bunch of maniacs torturing themselves.
In the summer of 1991 I was lucky enough to experience the madness firsthand and began to understand what “Le Tour” means to France. Staying in an apartment in Cannes, I was shocked to see a crowd of Frenchmen watching the race at the local hypermarchee. It was only natural that they’d be following the race, but where else in the world could they bring their own snacks, wine, and deck chairs and camp in front of the bank of TVs in the local electronics department? No one at the store batted an eyelid. Because the Tour is special.
I ended up taking the overnight train to Paris to experience the final stage in person. It was there, on a baking hot and impossibly crowded Champs-Elysees, that I saw the legendary Spaniard Miguel Indurain earn his first of five successive Tour de France victories. But that wasn’t what was special about the day. It had to do instead with the rumor that, on the first of the eight laps of Paris, Greg Lemond had broken away from the peleton and had a minute’s lead over the chasing pack.
Lemond, America’s first Tour winner, had never been overly popular with the French public. By beating Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon in 1986 and 1989 respectively, he had twice robbed victories from two of France’s favorite sons. By 1991 though, his best years were behind him and this Paris breakaway rated somewhere between pointlessness and insanity. He couldn’t possibly stay ahead of the gathering forces behind him, but he struggled onwards, standing out of his seat, pain etched on his face, as if to show France that he still understood that the glory of leading the Tour onto the Champs Elysees was still something worth fighting for. The ten deep crowds lining the road answered the only way possible: raising their voices as one and saluting the once-great champion. “Allez Greg! Allez Greg!”
This, in essence, is the whole illogical beauty of the Tour de France, a race that, for the past six years, has been dominated by Lance Armstrong like no man before him. Armstrong is undoubtedly the most famous athlete the sport of cycling has yet produced and his announcement that this year’s Tour De France will be his last is potentially a pivotal moment in American sports history. He is the face of Subaru, Oakley, and Nike, the man who launched the concept of plastic wristbands as a fashion accessory onto the world. Even in countries where cycling is merely viewed as a cost effective way of getting from A to B, everyone knows the man who whipped cancer and returned to dominate the field in the infamous Tour, the hardest race in the world. To Armstrong, no other bike race matters. “I live for this race,” Armstrong has written. “I love it. I want to win in more ways than most will ever know.”
And for an overwhelming section of the sporting public, no other rider matters either. It’s a relationship that suits both parties fine. By ignoring the One Day Classics, and Tours of Italy and Spain, Lance’s non-participation confirms the Tour De France as the one genuine World Championship. In fact, Lance hasn’t competed in the actual World Championships for years.
Still, despite the plaudits that come from being the greatest champion of his generation—ESPN Athlete of the Year, BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year, we could go on—there has always been a generally accepted perception that the French don’t like Armstrong. To an extent, that’s true. Certainly, the Mark 1 version of Armstrong, the brash Texan that refused to speak French and rode with a barely concealed rage, was not a popular winner. But to accuse the French media and public of unfocussed anti-Americanism is to miss the point of what cycling, and to a lesser extent, European sport is all about.
By way of counterexample, let’s take the US. One thing America has always been very good at is appreciating the aesthetic appeal of sport and its great performers. Michael Jordan was always more important than the Chicago Bull uniform he wore. People tuned in to watch his performance, rather than being ardent Bulls fans. In the USA, the promise of a good, hard fight—the exception being the handful of lunatic Red Sox or Cubs fanatics—is more important than the desperate, passionate urge to see one bunch of guys beat the crap out of another bunch.
All this is simply the natural result of an insular sports community, a society that will call the NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA and a handful of golfers and tennis players “The Sports World” without a hint of irony. Granted, there is plenty to commend about this appreciation of athletic competition for its own sake. In theory, it persuades kids to wrench themselves away from the TV and become active. It also produces a culture in which the truly great are deified for their excellence. Sportsmen like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth, and Lance Armstrong are elevated to the status of untouchables, isolated in their own perfection.
Europe, on the other hand, is different. You pick a favorite—be it a cyclist, or soccer, or rugby team—and you stick with it through thick and thin. Spaniards, French, English, and Germans compete with each other on a regular basis. Consequently, rivalry is everything. The true greats, if they’re playing for the opposition, are nothing more than an obstacle and a target for boos.
And when it comes to the Tour De France, the French are even more peculiar. They like their heroes flawed. And French. It’s a sporting society that can occasionally spill over into ugliness, the prime example being in 1975 when Eddie Merckx, attempting to win his sixth Tour, was punched in the kidneys by a spectator enraged by the Belgian’s continual dominance. Frenchman Bernard Thévenet went on to win that year’s race.
The French heroes over the years haven’t even been their greatest champions. Jacques Anquetil won five Tours in the 50s and 60s but was seen as aloof and mechanical. Five-time champion Bernard Hinault was seen as bullying and arrogant (especially after he waded into striking workers holding up the race). More popular were riders like Raymond Poulidor, who, in just fifteen Tours, finished second three times, third five times, though he never once wore the coveted Yellow Jersey. Even today, France’s darling remains climber Richard Virenque—a proven drug cheat and liar. Seemingly, they can’t deny his daring mountain attacks (and boyish good looks). Or perhaps they still remember him crying on national TV when he confessed to years of drug taking.
This is the beautiful madness of the Tour De France, an event where winning isn’t everything. Glory is. Such an ethos is rooted in Tour, and French, culture. Even in a film like Amelie, when our eponymous heroine returns the box of mementos to Mousier Bretodeau, his fondest childhood memory isn’t of Anquetil’s domination—it’s the one off triumph by dashing Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes. Of course, Lance Armstrong doesn’t fits into this pattern of flawed genius. His is a triumph of courage and a unique and unquenchable desire for victory. Which, of course, is exactly what the American sports public looks for in its heroes.
Armstrong is almost the quintessential American sports personality. He certainly has the name for it, and his remarkable story—raised by a single mother in the Texas football belt where he discovered triathlon, switching to bikes full time and winning the World Championship, defeating cancer against all the odds and going on to dominate the world’s toughest race for six (and potentially seven) years—would be rejected Hollywood as being too far fetched to be believable.
Yet Armstrong’s all-American rags-to-riches sports story has been the first one to take place outside America. Apart from the occasional European in the NBA and NHL (God rest its soul), America’s sports media finds it easy to ignore the rest of the world. There’s enough going on at home to worry about and, if you listen to the major networks, the only sport everyone else is interested in is soccer. And that’s just an excuse to riot anyway.
Armstrong, and his love affair with the Tour De France, has finally debunked that myth. The Tour is a sporting arena unlike any other. Corporate boxes and TV time- outs are an alien concept here. Stand by the side of the road, cheer the riders when they speed past, and enjoy the party. For the increasing number of Americans that head across the Atlantic to stand on the side of a mountain and wave the stars and stripes, it’s an attractive cultural alternative. No ticket scalpers. No overpriced concession stands. Just the thrill of being a part of the uncontrolled, cosmopolitan crowds, inches from the best riders in the world. Whether those thousands will continue to pour into France in the post-Armstrong era is debateable, but at least it’s on the agenda.
On the flip side, many have cast doubts on Armstrong’s achievements, the basing their accusations on the idea that they are, indeed, beyond human endurance. Following Jose Canseco’s revelations, America has become hypersensitive about drugs in sport. And certainly any semi-serious investigation in Armstrong’s off-season regime does raise questions about possible drug use. But the same questions could be asked of virtually every professional cyclist. It’s nearly fifty years since Anquetil declared that “you can’t ride the Tour De France on bread and water” and little has changed. The pressure to stay at the front is immense, and for the likes of Armstrong failure simply isn’t an option. The international cycling community has made little effort to rid the sport of drugs either, preferring to keep the crowd mesmerised by the continual stream of superhuman athletes ploughing their way up virtually vertical mountains. This article isn’t about any rider’s guilt or innocence, but it’s worth noting that the last man to win the Tour whose name wasn’t Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani, is dead from a drug habit that spiralled into uncontrollable cocaine addiction. Pantani’s death was a Shakespearian tragedy played out on the slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees. His triumphs were daring and spectacular, his descent from grace rapid and unforgiving. Yet Pantani remains a hero. Even Armstrong himself declared him “a genius.”
Still, if Armstrong has opened this bizarre world of beloved cheats and spectacular runners-up to an American audience, it’s a remarkable achievement. Not least because it’s shown the bitterly conservative sports media that America does care about what happens outside the fifty states. Lance Armstrong has expanded the boundaries of America’s so-called “Sports World.” For three weeks every July Americans (even if they don’t get up early to watch the race) follow the ups and downs of the greatest race on earth, cheering on Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton (though the latter won’t be riding this year; instead he’ll be serving a drugs ban). While the concept of style over absolute victory remains alien to the majority of sports viewers, Armstrong’s reign has opened a window to European and global sports culture that has never existed before. He has united the globe in admiration, if not adoration. And at a historical moment where the USA increasingly sees itself as culturally distant from its liberal, anti-war former allies in Europe, it’s a sporting and cultural link that’s worth nurturing.
Back in France though, millions will breathe a sigh of relief that the all-conquering Armstrong is calling it a day. Still, millions more will hail the passing of a truly great champion. This is an American who, after enduring early victories entrenched in a standoff with the often-hostile French media, started talking to them in their native tongue. In 2003, after falling near the bottom of Luz Ardiden, he produced the most spectacular comeback in Tour memory to equal the remarkable five victories of the race’s greatest legends. A year later he took an unprecedented sixth triumph in the style the French demanded—attacking without fear and relishing each stage victory like it was his first. This year will be his last Tour, and only a fool would write off his chances. Still, if he really wanted to be adored by the French public, he wouldn’t win in his traditional canter, but fail narrowly after pushing beyond his once untenable limits.
Win or lose, Armstrong calling an end to one of cycling’s greatest careers marks one of those rare occasions where the sports world, the real sports world, doffs its cap in honour of a true champion. And even on the Champs-Elysees, win or lose, they’ll raise a glass to the man who tamed their great race so many times. They’ll be there in their hundreds of thousands, all aiming for a last glimpse at the greatest champion since Merckx. “Allez Lance! Allez.”