CAUTERETS-VALLÉE DE SAINT-SAVIN, France (VN) — When Lance Armstrong returned to visit the Tour de France in 2006, France Soir newspaper went with the headline: “Welcome to France, asshole!”
Time has passed and exposed Armstrong as dope cheat. The feeling now may be the same, or worse, in France, but those inside the 2015 Tour remain unsure about him and the reasons behind his return.
Armstrong, stripped of seven Tour de France titles for doping, flew to southwest France on Wednesday. He is due to ride two stages of the race, one day ahead of the actual event, to raise money for a charity.
The 43-year-old Texan will ride Thursday and Friday, the stages to Rodez and Mende, with a group called Le Tour – One Day Ahead. The group, driven by former English soccer player Geoffrey Thomas, is riding every stage one day prior to raise £1 million for Cure Leukaemia.
Sky’s Chris Froome said that it is a good cause, near to his heart because his mother died of blood cancer, but that Armstrong is a “non-event” for the Tour itself.
“We definitely don’t see it as him being back at the Tour,” Froome said. “He’s not on the start line with us or anything like that. We’re not going to see him, it’s a non-event for us.”
Armstrong received a lifetime ban in 2012 for doping throughout the majority of his career. As part of the ruling, he lost his seven Tour de France titles won from 1999 to 2005. As cycling tries to move away from the EPO era, Armstrong’s presence in France alongside the Tour appears to make some uncomfortable.
“Armstrong already hurt cycling. He’s returning to his stomping grounds, but it’s very strange,” long-time L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel said.
“I think he’s looking to find himself. If he’s helping cancer, OK, but there are other ways to do that, like just giving money.”
“He’s going to have an awkward presence,” La Gazzetta dello Sport‘s head cycling journalist, Luca Gialanella explained. “Cycling can never go ahead with the skeletons in the closet, and it doesn’t help. We need to see if he’s going to make sure that everyone knows he’s here, giving interviews, et cetera, or if is going to just focus on pedalling with Geoffrey Thomas. If he can keep a low profile, then OK.”
When Armstrong returned to France to visit the 2006 Tour, France Soir greeted him with “asshole.” After the truth about the depth of his and Discovery Channel/U.S. Postal Service’s cheating, the feeling in France may not be far from that printed headline.
When hit with the news in March that Armstrong would ride the charity event alongside the Tour, Sky Principal David Brailsford was not welcoming.
“Lance has done enough damage to the Tour already. He’s done enough damage to the sport,” Brailsford told The Times. “He came back once when he shouldn’t have done, and I don’t think that he should come back this time either.”
The teams and riders asked at the Tour went easier on Armstrong. They did not wave the Hope Rides Again flag, but they did not take a shot at arguably the biggest cheat ever exposed in cycling.
“It’s his right,” Sky’s Australian, Richie Porte explained.
“It is his democratic right as the Americans like to say. It’s nothing to do with us.”
“I had not even heard,” Dane Jakob Fuglsang of team Astana said. “If he can raise money, then feel free to ride your bike. Of course, it can [hurt cycling], but if people are willing to pay to ride with him …”
Armstrong is set to ride two mid-mountain stages, not the big ones he conquered in his days. Thursday, he will ride 198.5 kilometers to Rodez and Friday, 178.5 kilometers to Mende. He has not announced an official visit to the Tour de France.