France slowly embracing Armstrong, it seems

Lance Armstrong is trying to capture more than just a seventh straight Tour de France title. He wants to win over the French fans, too.

Updated: July 18, 2005, 3:28 PM ET
Associated Press

PAU, France -- Lance Armstrong is trying to capture more than just a seventh straight Tour de France title. He wants to win over the French fans, too.

So far, it's working.

The American cyclist has regularly left the team bus during this year's Tour to greet hordes of people, who push and shove to get a glimpse of him.

He recently stopped and rode over to a screaming fan who was calling for him. Armstrong chatted with her while her husband joined the conversation.

"Lance, give us your cap," the man said in broken English, laced with a heavy regional accent.

Armstrong handed it over, causing the excited couple to jump up and down and hug each other.

"We love you Lance. We love you," they shouted as he cruised back down to the Discovery Channel bus.

Over the years, gaining support from the French public has proved tougher than beating his rivals up the mountains or in the time trials.

"My objective is to win the hearts of the French fans," said Armstrong, who will quit the sport at the conclusion of the race in Paris next Sunday.

The Tour took a day off on Monday. Armstrong has been more open, less stressed, and happier to share the limited time remaining in his stellar career.

"He's definitely more relaxed, the pressure's off him a little bit," said team director Johan Bruyneel, who has worked with Armstrong on every Tour win.

Armstrong said a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he won his sixth Tour, eclipsing the record shared by five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Heading into the 112.2-mile, 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau on Tuesday, Armstrong leads Ivan Basso by 2 minutes, 46 seconds, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich by 5:58 and Alexandre Vinokourov by 9:38.

Armstrong has one tough mountain stage in the Pyrenees left in addition to two other modest climbing stages, a flat stage and a time trial.

"We have a decent lead with a big time trial to come, where maybe we can take a little more advantage," Bruyneel said Monday. "But it doesn't matter if it's 30 seconds, all that matters is to win."

Armstrong's sometimes brash dominance of the 102-year-old race is one reason why he has encountered hostility. In recent years, politics have also played a part.

France and the United States have had an uneasy relationship since they disagreed over the Iraq war -- tensions that have spilled over on Armstrong.

"I'm a guy who almost always defends this country and these people in a time when there's not a lot of people defending this country of France," Armstrong said.

France has not always treated him kindly -- be it in aggressive newspaper columns or in narrow mountain passes where fans stand inches away from his face.

Armstrong endured one of the most harrowing experiences of his career last year, in a time trial up the famed L'Alpe d'Huez mountain. People spat on him, threw beer in his face, yelled insults. With his eyes staring ahead, Armstrong powered through them all to win the stage with a stunning display of single-mindedness. He admitted afterward that he was deeply upset.

There have been other incidents over the years -- spectators screaming doping accusations at him, or drawing needle shapes and scribbling obscenities on the roads.

Armstrong doesn't hold a grudge.

"I can't say enough good things about it (France). I genuinely love this country, the culture, the history. I don't know what else I can do," he said. "Of course, four or five people a day seem to know it all and have a lot of nasty things to say. But ultimately, I think we have a fine relationship."

His charm seems to be working this year, and people appear to have warmed up to him more.

"You have to respect him," cycling fan Philippe Marsan said.

"Look what he has achieved and what he has come back from. How can people not be moved by that? Yes, there are people who dislike him, but I think a lot of it is jealousy."

Armstrong wants to create as much of a feel-good factor as he can.

He has chatted and joked with television crews rolling along beside him. Barely an hour after one punishing stage, Armstrong sat down for a long television interview. He smiled and laughed, even cracking a joke in French slang.

Armstrong regularly insists on starting interviews in French. His grasp of grammar is not perfect, but speaking the language enables him to reach the public, removing the barrier of a translator.

The presence of rocker girlfriend Sheryl Crow has also softened his image.

Every morning, Crow is by the team bus or milling around talking to fans. She often kisses him or leaps into his arms at the end of a stage. In previous years, Armstrong's outward signs of affection were limited to high-fiving teammates. Now, he often gives Crow the flowers or the fluffy lion that he gets each day for being the race leader.

Crow even appeared at a post-race news conference, poking her head around the door, eagerly absorbing another part of her boyfriend's world. She also sat by his side in another lighthearted TV interview.

"I think it's really cool that he lets Sheryl hang out with him," 22-year-old Aurelie Langlois said. "Cycling is a very macho sport, but he doesn't seem to be."

Yet his struggle to be a local favorite still goes on. It could be a fight he never totally wins.

On the 15th stage Sunday from Lezat-sur-Leze to Saint-Lary-Soulan, Armstrong got off from the team bus to warm applause. Moments later, jeers and boos rang out further down the road, and some insults filled the air.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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