Lance Armstrong hogs attention as he courts controversy with charity ride at Tour de France
Published 16/07/2015 | 15:04
It could have been 2005 again as Lance Armstrong emerged, blinking, from a team bus in a small village in southern France to a scrum of jostling reporters, eager to collect his thoughts on the day ahead.
The only difference was when the Texan set off to ride stage 13 of the Tour de France, from Muret to Rodez, on Thursday, there were no fans lining the route, no professional riders alongside him, and the questions concerned the appropriateness of his being in France at all.
Armstrong is in town to ride two stages of this year's Tour de France route with One Day Ahead, a charity ride set up by former England footballer and fellow cancer survivor Geoff Thomas, which is aiming to raise £1 million for Cure Leukaemia by cycling the entire Tour route one day ahead of the peloton. And the Texan's presence on the ride has proved predictably divisive from the moment it was announced earlier this spring.
Brian Cookson, the president of cycling's world governing body the UCI, was hugely critical, describing Armstrong's decision to return to a race he cheated throughout his seven-year winning streak from 1999-2005 as in poor taste.
Team Sky manager Sir Dave Brailsford has also questioned whether Armstrong's presence is fair on the current peloton, detracting attention from the race and providing an unwelcome link to a darker past.
Bretagne-Seche, one of the French teams competing at the Tour, sent out a tweet on Thursday morning along similar lines. "You can ride anywhere @lancearmstrong," it said. "But no trouble in your mind to steal media interest to riders like ours who never cheated?"
Armstrong - who famously beat testicular cancer earlier in his career and who insists his goal over the next two days is to help further the cause of the charity - said he was unsure what sort of reaction his presence on the ride would provoke, but claimed before setting off he had been welcomed by the locals at a dinner in Toulouse the previous evening.
"I don't know... all I know is this is a frenzy," the American said as a scuffle broke out between the charity organisers and one over-zealous cameraman. "But if I compare this experience to going to dinner in Toulouse last night with local people, it's very different.
People are always very nice, I respect it and I appreciate that and I enjoy being here."
Armstrong had managed to steal the agenda before he had even arrived in France, tweeting in the wake of Chris Froome's stunning stage victory in La Pierre-Saint-Martin on Tuesday that he had "no clue" whether the Sky rider and yellow jersey wearer was clean or not.
He apologised for making those comments on arrival in France, saying it was not his intention to invite speculation, and remained neutral when asked again about Froome's performances on Thursday morning.
"It's not my job to give my opinion about that [Froome], I watch the race just like everybody," he said. "I think it's the first time in a couple of years I have watched the race and it's been an interesting first week with obviously a lot of dramas in the race, crashes, wind, things like this.
"Chris Froome had been avoiding all the problems. Of course he's leading the Tour by three minutes, it's impressive."
Of the negativity some have expressed about his presence in France, he added: "I understand people's reactions. I understand there are some hurt feelings and that's a process I'll walk through for a long, long time.
"Honestly, Geoff started a great thing. This is a cause that is near and dear to him. He came to Austin and made a real passionate effort so I decided to do it."