Home of Armstrong’s Tour de France triumph sees justice in his fall
AS news broke that Lance Armstrong is to be stripped of his Tour de France titles for doping, there was more than a whiff of Schadenfreude in the home of the epic race the Texan dominated for nearly a decade.
French cycling veterans lamented the stain on the world's most famous bike race, but the newspapers felt justice was finally being done and online commentators asked whether France might now see more of its cyclists on the podium.
"Armstrong personified impunity. He was seen as too well protected to fall. So the big message today is that impunity is over," said Damien Ressiot, a sports reporter who published the first doping allegations against Armstrong in the sporting daily L'Equipe seven years ago to the day.
"What is a shame is that by saying he accepts the decision, Armstrong will avoid a public debate so we'll never know exactly what happened and how he was able to cheat for so long."
Beating testicular cancer to win the Tour an unprecedented seven times, Armstrong, clad in the leader's yellow jersey, came to close to personifying the race from 1999 until his retirement last year, popularising it with millions of Americans.
He also became an inspiration for cancer sufferers worldwide.
On Thursday, Armstrong dropped his fight against doping charges, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said he would be stripped of his titles and banned from competitive cycling.
While the American, who speaks basic French, was always publicly cheered in the country that made him one of cycling's greats, many people regarded him as standing for a generation of cheats who always seemed to get away with it.
"The rotten years of cycling have been identified and Lance Armstrong is out," Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, head of French cycle racing team Europcar, told Reuters. "We are working as hard as we did then and we have better results. French cycling has regained its standing."
Veteran French racing cyclist Laurent Jalabert, widely popular in France though he never won the Tour, told RTL radio he felt sadness and anger at the blight on both the Tour de France and the wider world of professional cycling.
"The axe has fallen," wrote daily newspaper Le Figaro in its online edition. "Some people will be furious but others will see justice being done."
Le Monde said Armstrong's downfall should serve as a turning point for the sport. "Saint Armstrong, pierced with arrows, has finally succumbed," the newspaper said in an editorial. "This illustrates anew that this sport is poisoned by doping."
Many in France are angry at the way doping has come to overshadow the glory of a punishing three-week race that courses 3,500 km (2,200 miles) through the mountains and valleys of France at breakneck speed and has been held every year, except in wartime, since 1903.
While French cyclists have over the years been most successful in the event, winning 36 of the 94 tours, the last Frenchman to win was Bernard Hinault back in 1985.
Since then, American and Spanish riders have dominated, with Armstrong and Spaniard Miguel Indurain recording seven and five wins each. This year's Tour was won for the first time by a Briton, Olympic gold-medallist Bradley Wiggins.
"That's it -- we are going to have a Frenchman back on the podium," one online reader of L'Equipe commented in reaction to the Armstrong story.
"At last!" said another. "Everyone knew (Armstrong) was guilty -- he was the only one able to talk without panting when he got to the top of a hill."
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has based its case on eyewitness accounts that Armstrong, along with other leading Tour de France cyclists, were injecting themselves with the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs.
While Armstrong is only one among several Tour de France champions accused of doping, he is by far the most prominent.
Bernard Thevenet, who won the Tour de France twice, said stripping Armstrong of the titles that have made his fortune and turned him into a global brand would send a clear message that things have changed.
"If Armstrong cheated then it's perfectly reasonable that he should be punished," he told RTL radio. "It's a very strong message for cyclists and those around them who might be tempted to cheat."
Ressiot, for whom Armstrong's fall feels like vindication for his years-long quest to get recognition for his claims that urine samples from Armstrong in 1999 had tested positive for EPO, said the best outcome would be to set up a much more stringent testing system.
"Of course this hurts the Tour's image, but the stain from doping affairs of the last 15 years was already catastrophic so I don't think anyone is surprised. The problem today is that all great sporting results are viewed with suspicion," Ressiot said.
"I am saddest for the cancer sufferers who made Armstrong a hero. He biggest crime was to lie to those people," he said. (Additional reporting by Chrystel Boulet, Brian Love, Gregory Blachier and Pierre Serisier; Editing by Giles Elgood)