Further European arrogance and condescension towards Americans
Fans Jeer Armstrong on Eve of Tour
By MICHAEL McDONOUGH, Associated Press Writer
DUNKIRK, France (AP) - Lance Armstrong was jeered not once but twice by cycling fans before Saturday's start of the Tour de France, which he hopes to win for the third straight year.
The cold reception toward the Texan and his U.S. Postal Service team came during a Friday night ceremony leading to the beginning of the grueling three-week race.
Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc attributed the response to the decision by Armstrong's team to not select local favorite Cedric Vasseur to ride in the Tour.
``We can understand the public's reaction,'' he said.
While Armstrong's recovery from cancer has made for an inspirational comeback, he has yet to win the hearts of the French fans.
U.S. Postal was the only one of 21 teams riding in the Tour de France to be booed by the several thousand fans in Dunkirk for the team presentation. On leaving the stand, the riders chose not to complete a traditional lap around the stand and were jeered a second time.
Armstrong is trying to become only the second American - after Greg LeMond - to win the Tour de France three times and the first to do so three years in a row.
The showcase race began with a 5.1-mile time trial prologue in Dunkirk. Armstrong was aiming for a strong start - but not too strong.
``This is a long race and if you're in form too early and you have a bad last 10 days, then you lose,'' he said.
Sunday's first stage is a 121-mile run on the flat countryside of France's northern Opal Coast, between St. Omer and Boulogne sur Mer.
Most of the following week features similar stages - with a two-day crossover into Belgium.
Armstrong's team will try to save its energy for the real test, the five days of mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees that make up the middle of the Tour.
The uphill stages push riders to the limit, and in Armstrong's words, ``make all the difference.'' Among those stages is an individual time trial of 20 miles that involves a climb of nearly a mile.
``I think it will be one of the most critical stages of the Tour,'' Armstrong said of the race's 11th stage between Grenoble and Chamrousse. ``It's a rare and difficult discipline.''
The 30-year-old rider can take comfort from his triumph in the recent Tour of Switzerland, due in large part to his victory in the uphill time trial in the Alps.
Armstrong's most formidable rivals this year include 1997 champion Jan Ullrich, who has a history of weight problems but is considered in good shape this year.
Others with a chance of pulling an upset include Spain's Joseba Beloki, who finished third last year, and France's Christophe Moreau.
Leblanc likened Armstrong to five-time Tour winners Eddy Merckx, the top star of the 1960s and 1970s, and Miguel Indurain, the star of the 1990s.
``There are generations that are marked by a dominant champion,'' Leblanc said.
The Tour again is shadowed by drugs. Last month, the Giro d'Italia was subjected to a police raid of team hotels. More than 60 riders reportedly were placed under investigation as a result of the sweep.
The International Cycling Union carried out blood tests Thursday on all riders taking part in this year's Tour. None failed the tests, which check the blood's oxygen level.
A high-oxygen level indicates possible use of performance-enhancing substances. Three riders were barred from starting last year's Tour after failing the blood tests.