In losing the 2009 Tour de France Lance Armstrong has experienced something many of us wouldn’t have dared guess. He’s feeling the love. The Lance backlash has un-backlashed for some people. People of every nationality who reviled Armstrong have turned about face and are, almost inexplicably, fans again.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Annecy time trial. Though one could hear the occasional jeer (and one guy did moon him) on the climb of the Cote de Bluffy, Armstrong rode to the cheers of thousands.
Some sports writer somewhere will attribute this to the French psyche, postulating that the French have such a history of defeat they could only love a loser, turning a profound event into the butt of yet another joke about the French.
That Armstrong would experience a turnaround in public opinion here in the United States isn’t as surprising, nor is it as apparent. Armstrong has continued to have legions of fans and those who did dislike him did so for a variety of reasons: that he was overexposed and no other capable cyclists got any mainstream media attention, that he was too dominant at the Tour de France, that there are strong allegations of doping, that he rained on Contador’s parade.
The dislike the French have felt for Armstrong (and dislike is putting it lightly) has been simpler and more uniform in nature, which is what makes the turnaround so much more dramatic and complete.
For the French people, if not the French media, their dislike of Armstrong was rooted in his dominance. Three is, indeed, a magic number. It seems to be the point beyond which the crowd begins to turn; it happened to Miguel Indurain, and for some folks, it happened following Mark Cavendish’s third stage win at this year’s Tour. When Armstrong took the yellow jersey at the 2002 Tour de France, French opinion began to change of the great champion.
By 2003 most of France was united against Armstrong and his dominance in their mind was intertwined with their belief that he must be doping. With each successive win his utter authority in the race only reinforced the belief that his achievement was superhuman.
Now, in defeat, he is human once again. One of us. People who haven’t cheered for Armstrong in years have been shouting for him to put in a big performance, ironically just the sort of performance that made people dislike him in the first place.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International