|Tour's Champion Begins With Head Games||ohmk1|
Jul 1, 2003 4:49 AM
|FROM TODAY'S NEW YORK TIMES
July 1, 2003
Pursuit of Tour's Champion Begins With Head Games
By SAMUEL ABT
PARIS, June 30 - As the Tour de France approaches its start in Paris on Saturday, the two questions most asked by casual fans, especially Americans, are: "Will the French boo Lance Armstrong?" and "Is Lance Armstrong going to win again?"
On paper, where nobody has yet managed to conduct a race, the answer to both is "probably."
The booing first. There are 60 million French citizens, and surely five or six of them will be standing on a mountain road under a hot sun, having in all probability consumed wine in the hours before Armstrong rides by during the 3,427-kilometer (2,142-mile) three-week race.
As they did last year, that handful may jeer Armstrong, the leader of the United States Postal Service team. They shouted "dopé, dopé," for drug addict, as he climbed Mont Ventoux.
That was the second time Armstrong was heckled, a rare occurrence in the sport. In 2000, after his team dropped a popular French rider from its Tour crew, Armstrong was booed in the north, where the Tour started and where the rider lived.
Despite the criticism, Armstrong, a Texan, is respected by the French. A poll in the latest issue of the bicycling magazine Velo placed him second among "champions who best exemplify the Tour." Armstrong came in at 14 percent, just behind Bernard Hinault (16) and far ahead of Eddy Merckx (9) and French favorites like Laurent Jalabert (6) and Richard Virenque (5).
If there is booing this year, forget anti-Americanism, which seems nonexistent on a personal level in France. The booing of Serena Williams at the French Open seems to have been directed at her personally, not at her nationality. Forget the war in Iraq. Forget the grievance that no Frenchman has won the Tour since 1985 while two Americans, Armstrong and Greg LeMond, have won a combined seven times since.
Remember the wine. Remember the hot sun. Remember Armstrong's public outrage when he was mocked last year and the way oafs feed off that reaction. Can Armstrong do anything to prevent anyone from shouting insults? No, but he can spoil their fun by pretending not to hear them. Don't bet on it.
More complicated is the question of whether he can win again.
He showed when he won the weeklong Dauphiné Libéré race earlier this month that he was strong and, as always, focused and motivated.
As he seeks his fifth consecutive victory, Armstrong is certainly not being distracted by the hoopla surrounding this Centennial Tour.
"If it was the 99th year or the 101st year, it would still be the most important thing of the year for me," he said. "The centennial doesn't change the importance for the team or for me as an athlete."
Armstrong seems to be facing a far broader array of opponents than usual. They include Jan Ullrich, 29, a German who twice finished second to Armstrong; Joseba Beloki, 29, a Spaniard, once second, twice third; Santiago Botero, 30, a Colombian who was fourth last year and won the first long time trial, with Armstrong second; Levi Leipheimer, 29, an American who was eighth last year; and Christophe Moreau, 32, a Frenchman who was nowhere last year after a series of crashes forced him to retire from the race.
Armstrong has dominated them all before and they may be intimidated by him. Intimidated riders tend to shoot for an attainable second or third place, not first.
Somewhat in the same state is Tyler Hamilton, 32, an American who helped Armstrong win three Tours as part of the Postal Service team. Hamilton joined the CSC team from Denmark last year, finished second in the Giro d'Italia despite a broken shoulder and then 15th in the Tour while still injured.
A strong climber and time-trialer, Hamilton nevertheless may not be able to overcome his respect for Armstrong to become a true riv