Americans don’t seem to like competitive cycling. At least most don’t. The French, who supposedly love cycling, don’t seem to like one of the best cyclists who ever lived.
That is the mystery surrounding Lance Armstrong.
I’m not anti-French. Our two countries have a long and fundamental relationship that many Americans have forgotten. When the infant United States declared independence, it was the French alone who supported our cause. It took us awhile to repay them, but when the Germans took control of France during WWII, it was Dwight Eisenhower’s army that liberated them. And throughout history, France’s authors, artists and thinkers have influenced our culture in ways that cannot be measured.
My beef is not with the French, but with France’s anti-doping agency, which continues to hound Lance Armstrong without any credible evidence that he has ever cheated. While doping is a huge problem in Armstrong’s sport and I don’t blame anyone for trying to stamp it out, the single-mindedness with which authorities have gone after Armstrong is baffling.
On Thursday, the French cycling police, known as AFLD, announced that Armstrong took a 20-minute shower after a drug tester showed up at his door for a random screening. Armstrong claims the tester allowed him to clean up while the cyclist’s assistants made sure the tester was who he claimed to be. Now, there’s talk of disciplinary action against Armstrong, the most dominant Tour de France champion of his generation.
This is not the first time French cycling authorities have homed in on Armstrong. There were unproven allegations, long after the fact, that Armstrong had tested positive for the banned blood booster erythropoietin during the 1999 Tour. And there has been a whisper campaign against him for years in the French press. No charge has ever panned out, despite Armstrong’s contention that he has been the most frequently tested rider in history.
For his part, Armstrong has not endeared himself to the French. A couple of years ago, he insulted France’s soccer team by saying “all their players tested positive — for being assholes.”
Yet nothing that has been written seems to shed any light on why French authorities are so determined to bust Lance Armstrong. Is the native Texan too “American” for their taste? Maybe. The French have resisted the Americanization of their culture for decades. Maybe Armstrong, whose name is so quintessentially American that it could have headlined a radio serial in the 1940s, is an unwelcome symbol of something that runs deeper than sports.
Perhaps the explanation is simpler. Maybe French cycling authorities are tired of foreigners dominating their flagship sporting event for so many years in a row.
French riders have won the Tour more times than riders from any other country, but none have won since 1985 when Jacques Anquetil prevailed. Anquetil and countryman Bernard Hinault each won five Tours, a feat that only two other cyclists have achieved except for Armstrong, who won seven — in a row. To French cycling fans it has to be galling that the most important Tour competitor in history hails from a country that doesn’t give a hoot about the sport.
Lance Armstrong supposedly retired from pro cycling in 2005, the year he last won the Tour. He is now training for his big comeback, if French cycling authorities will let him. My prediction is that this witch hunt will turn out like all the others and that Armstrong will do what he has done so many times before — show us what sheer mental toughness and physical preparation mean while making Americans sit up and take notice of an event they wouldn’t care about otherwise. The French should be grateful for that.
But if not, here’s a thought: This year’s Tour begins on July 4. What better day for Lance Armstrong to commence kicking his detractors’ collective asses?