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French cycling establishment quick to turn page on Armstrong Affair

After butting heads with Armstrong for years, the French cycling establishment is eager to move on

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PARIS (VN) — Lance Armstrong made the front page of L’Equipe on Tuesday, probably for the last time, and for all the wrong reasons.

The Texan’s lifetime ban, which the UCI rubber-stamped on Monday, gives the French the chance to take a parting shot at Armstrong.

The L’Equipe headline read: “Par UCI la sortie!” — a play on words of sorts, which roughly means, “UCI shows (Armstrong) the door.”

There’s certainly no love lost between Armstrong and France, the country that was the backdrop to the seven straight Tour wins that now officially never took place. Armstrong was often at loggerheads with French authorities and fans. He ruffled feathers early in his Tour run by refusing to speak French, something that angered then-Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc.

Armstrong later tried to appease French fans and media, but it was too late. The die was cast. It was Lance versus the French.

That long-simmering bad blood boiled over Wednesday in Paris for the presentation of the 2013 Tour.

Armstrong’s name went without direct mention during the hour-long ceremony, but the message from the dias was clear: the Tour wants to turn its back on the EPO era once and for all.

“Cycling is not the enemy. The Tour is not the enemy. The enemy is doping,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme. “The Tour de France is stronger than the doping. The Tour is stronger than the cheaters.”

Armstrong’s legacy was on the tongue of everyone attending Wednesday’s presentation ceremony, held before a packed house at the Palais de Congrès in Paris.

Many of France’s cycling establishment were in attendance, including old-guard French directors such as Marc Madiot, the manager of FDJ-BigMat, who characterized the Armstrong scandal as “anecdotal.”

“What’s happening with Armstrong is almost trivial. We need to get over all this business, because it happened a long time ago and many already had suspicions that have proven to be true,” he said. “What worries me more is what’s happening in Padua and the appearance that nothing has changed since Operación Puerto. Armstrong is ancient history.”

Pierre Rolland (Europcar), the breakout French star whom many believe could fight for the yellow jersey in the coming years, said the Armstrong scandal is something cycling must overcome.

“We must take those pages and rip them out of the history books,” Rolland said. “The sport has changed since those days. People must believe us when we say the sport is better. I was not around then, but I am glad that today the sport is cleaner.”

How the Tour handles the Armstrong era will be interesting to watch, but it seems clear from Wednesday that it would like to forget it as quickly as possible.

The race made a lot of money thanks to Armstrong’s seven-year run, earning millions in television profits as interest in the Tour exploded far beyond the traditional markets. Even this July, when rumors of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case were building, Armstrong banners and posters were present at the entrance of the start village daily.

Armstrong, however, was persona non grata.

Organizers broadcast two polished, high-quality videos as part of the presentation, one highlighting the 2012 Tour that included images from previous Tours and another looking back at the 100 years of Tour history. Armstrong was nowhere to be seen, though images of the Tour’s five-time winners — Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — featured prominently. It was an overt message that the official record has reverted from seven back to five.

The second video is part of a full-length movie that will be released 100 days before the start of the 100th edition of the Tour, but Armstrong, whose record seven Tour wins the UCI erased from the history books Monday, was hardly featured. There was only one small glimpse of the Texan, wearing the yellow jersey and jumping across the ditch in the 2003 Tour when Joseba Beloki crashed.

History will surely paint Armstrong’s legacy in France in negative strokes. The Texan’s confrontational attitude and absolute dominance over the Tour often infuriated French sensibilities during his heyday.

But more serious were his run-ins with French anti-doping authorities during the arc of his now-annulled Tour run.

In 2000, French anti-doping officials investigated packages of Actovegin that U.S. Postal Service staffers threw out during the race. No formal charges came of it, but that set the tone for the next decade as Armstrong bashed the French in the media and vice-versa.

Armstrong often characterized allegations of cheating as a French conspiracy and as a witch hunt. The French did their part as well. When Armstrong returned to the Tour after retiring in 2005, one newspaper ran the headline, “The Asshole is Back.”

Things heated up in the 2000s to the point that Armstrong left France for the cozier confines of Spain, where authorities were much more lax and the team’s doping ring could act with impunity.

Worse was when French labs retroactively tested samples taken during the 1999 Tour, six of which tested positive for EPO. Using the pretense that he was writing a story about how often Armstrong was tested without giving a positive sample, L’Equipe reporter Damien Ressiot actually convinced Armstrong to reveal his secret code that he later matched up to the 1999 positive samples.

L’Equipe ran the story with a front-page banner headline: “Cheater.”

Armstrong ran afoul again with French anti-doping authorities in 2010, when he kept an AFLD official — who was conducting a surprise, out-of-competition control while Armstrong was training on the Cote d’Azur — waiting for nearly 30 minutes. It was a clear violation of the rules, but Armstrong said he was taking a shower.

Again, despite a media stink-up, the authorities never filed formal charges and Armstrong continued racing.

With Monday’s UCI ruling that Armstrong’s legacy is now one of a confirmed cheat, the French were more than happy to pour it on.

Le Figaro, the leading French daily, wrote, “Armstrong scandal poses challenging questions for cycling’s future” and that “Armstrong loses everything.”

Others chimed in as well. Yvon Sanquer, team manager at Cofidis, said the case proves that nothing changed for the better following 1998’s Festina Affair.

“After Festina, everyone hoped that things would have changed,” Sanquer said. “In fact, it was quite the opposite. This proves that you can never let down your guard.”

Tour director Prudhomme also broke his silence over the USADA investigation, saying that Armstrong no longer deserved the status of Tour winner.

“We wish it didn’t come to this, but Armstrong is no longer the winner of the Tour,” Prudhomme said. “Riders now know they will eventually get caught if they cheat. No one is above the rules. Those who cheat will get caught sooner or later.”

Following Monday’s earthquake of officially purging Armstrong from the record books, all eyes now turn to the Tour de France and what race organizers will say and do to try to bolster the bruised credibility of cycling.

In 1999, the Tour was coming out of the devastation of the Festina Affair and dubbed that year’s edition as the “Tour of Renewal.” ASO’s marketing team avoided treading the same waters for 2013, instead choosing to promote the race as “100-percent French” for its 100th anniversary.

Whatever the branding message out of Paris, organizers are just hoping they will not again have to re-adjust the records books 10 years down the road.