Why do the French hate Lance Armstrong so?
Because he’s arrogant. After all these years and seven Tour de France titles, he can converse, apparently, in passable French. But he refuses to do so while in France, the one place in the world where it would be most appreciated.
Because he’s a Texan. The Previous Occupant, you may recall, hailed from Texas and decided that French fries should instead to be called “freedom fries” because the French people (along with much of “Old Europe”) had declined to jump aboard Mr. Bush’s Iraq-war ship of fools.
Because they’re sure he’s a cheater; they just haven’t been able to catch him at it. Nobody wins seven Tours in a row. Dominates a sport the French (used to) claim as the soul of Gallic verve. A Who’s Who of guys finishing behind Lance over the years – Americans, Italians, Spaniards, Germans, Belgians, Kazakhs – have tested positive. So how could he, an arrogant Texan, not be juicing?
Armstrong claims purity. Coming out of retirement this year after three years off, he announced his intention to win an eighth Tour and prove once and for all that he rides clean. And, of course, promote his foundation’s fight against cancer. And stick a thumb in some Frenchman’s eye.
In fact, Lance’s insistence that he has never done drugs is at least a little disingenuous. Back in the mid-1990s when he was battling testicular cancer, he was given EPO, erythropoietin, to boost his red blood cell production. This is the same hormone cyclists and cross-country skiers and others have been taking, and trying to mask, for years because it really improves performance. EPO was the substance the French drug testing agency, the Agence Française de Lutte contre le Dopage, or AFLD, says it found in Armstrong’s urine after his first Tour win in 1999.
Those samples were mishandled. They were old. The leaks to the press were unprofessional and contrary to the rules of the International Cycling Union. The result was largely discredited. Except by the French.
Armstrong’s many test samples since have not turned up any positives. Until now, Lance has weathered a nearly continuous storm of skepticism while maintaining a simmering war of words with a whole country he believes is out to get him.
So, it did not come as a surprise last week when the AFLD released a report claiming that Armstrong failed to cooperate with an impromptu test at the cyclist’s rented house on the French Riviera. Not failed to cooperate exactly, but failed to “respect the obligation to stay under direct and permanent observation” of the tester. The two sides, predictably, tell two very different stories.
Lance says the tester showed up alone. This was odd in itself, he thought, and so he had his team manager call the UCI to check the man’s credentials. Armstrong says he asked the man’s leave to take a shower – he’d just come off a training ride – and permission was granted. Twenty minutes later, once the credentials were confirmed, and upon emerging from his shower, Armstrong gave the requested samples of blood, urine and hair. “Not the best haircut I’ve ever had,” he complained on his Livestrong website, “but that’s not the point.” The point was, all the tests came back negative. Done. That should have been that.
The AFLD says, au contraire, the world’s most famous (and most arrogant) cyclist did not seek permission to disappear from the tester’s sight for 20 minutes, 20 minutes during which he could have been doing who knows what to mask the drugs he surely has been taking. It’s a serious thing, the French say. Serious enough, possibly, to have Armstrong banned from this year’s Tour.
The charge is vindictive. Armstrong could conceivably have used his time in the bathroom to alter his urine sample. But he couldn’t have changed anything about his blood or his hair.
Armstrong in his rage (and on his blog) became somber. He noted that he has been tested 24 times since his comeback began in September. He says he simply trains harder than anyone else. His team manager says the French “want Lance’s head at any price.” The French, and indeed many who know the sport intimately, say no one could do what Lance has done without pharmaceutical help. The cheat doctors are always one step ahead of the testers. And, Lord knows, Lance has the ambition and the money to buy the best the doctors can come up with.
If he’s banned from the Tour it would be too bad from a fan’s point of view. Armstrong’s presence on cycling’s biggest stage, especially if he contends, would deliver fantastic drama. It would do nothing, though, to dispel the air of cynicism around a sport that has effectively driven itself mad over drugs.