Tour de France short on nostalgia for Armstrong

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 9, 2006

The fans, all elbows and expectation, strained two, three, four or more rows deep against the barriers protecting Lance Armstrong’s bus.

“Lance! Lance! Lance!” they shrieked as the door opened and the champ in yellow, in the latter years with rock singer Sheryl Crow often in tow, finally appeared. Autographs. Soundbites for the newsmen. Then, Moses-like, his bodyguards carved a passage through the masses and he was gone — to work on Tour de France roads.

In some ways, the frenzy of Lancemania was fun. But the Tour is proving exciting without him, too — maybe even more so than when he held the race in an iron grip.

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Without the Texan and top riders from his time who are now suspected of doping, cycling’s 103-year-old showcase event is off to a fresh start. Perhaps the best part is that it is still anyone’s guess after the first week who might win, although Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis is looking good.

Armstrong, undoubtedly, would contest the idea that any of his seven wins were written in advance. A race as long, as hard and as hazardous as the three-week Tour can always produce surprises, fans are often told.

But that’s not how it sometimes felt. Victories six and seven, especially, had an air of inevitability. What else could one think when Armstrong distanced rivals so clinically? Critics complained that he and his ruthlessly professional team of support riders “killed” the racing.

His dominance and the difficulty that the quintessentially French race and many of its fans had in fully accepting an American champion and his American ways help explain why there’s virtually no nostalgia for Armstrong this year. The Tour, it seems, was ready to move on.

The stunning withdrawal on the eve of the Tour of Germany’s Jan Ullrich, Italy’s Ivan Basso, Spain’s Francisco Mancebo and Kazak rider Alexandre Vinokourov because of doping allegations also left little time to dwell on the past. Without those top contenders and without Armstrong, hope has been rekindled in riders who haven’t seen as much of the limelight in recent years. Some French fans are even daring to dream again of a possible homegrown winner (there hasn’t been one since 1985), to go with their Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo and, they hope, a soccer World Cup on Sunday.

“It’s changed so drastically,” said American rider Christian Vandevelde, who was on Armstrong’s Tour team for his wins in 1999 and 2001 and now races for Team CSC, Basso’s squad.

“It’s not just Lance. It’s obvious reasons … There’s not half the stress there has been in the past, with half the fans just trying to go see Jan or trying to see Lance — people who are not exactly cycling fans but just wanted to see a famous person.”

Smaller clusters of fans and reporters still gather around the Discovery Channel team bus that was Armstrong’s temple at the Tour. But the barriers and bodyguards that riled Tour purists have mostly gone. Even some members of Discovery are savoring the relative new calm.

Tour organizers say that television audience figures are down by around a third so far this year in the United States, but that viewing is up in Belgium and Norway. A Belgian rider, Tom Boonen, held the race lead and its yellow jersey for four straight days in the first week and Norwegian sprint specialist Thor Hushovd had it for two.

Without Armstrong riding in their midst, some Tour riders say the atmosphere in the peloton — the cycling name for the pack — is more easygoing.

Although still in its early days, with the Pyrenees and Alps to come in weeks two and three, the race has had a less regulated, more fluid feel without Armstrong’s team riding up front, setting the pace and keeping him shielded from wind and accidents.

“There isn’t the supreme being Lance at all times, it’s a strange peloton,” said Vandevelde.