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Reserving the right to applaud

A JOURNALIST from a radio station in Philadelphia called last week on the day before the opening round of the British Open at Carnoustie. She wasn't interested in golf.

Lance Armstrong had just won the ninth stage of the Tour de France in Sestrieres. Three years after being told he might not survive cancer, the 27-year-old was leading the world's toughest sporting event by a whopping eight minutes. It was, she enthused, a truly remarkable story. Would I be willing to be interviewed on how the sport had cleaned-up its act?

``What makes you think it has,'' I replied. ``For sure, there has been some improvement but there is still much to be done. The same people in the same positions are still making decisions. Syringes are still being dumped in hotel rooms. The champions are still being exposed.''

Not sure this was really what she wanted to hear, I could sense her mood begin to deflate. ``That's interesting,'' she said, ``just let me run it past my producer and call you back.'' She never did.

Walking into Jonzac for the start of Le Tour's 18th stage was a strange experience on Friday. A year after the visit to Ireland, a year after being torpedoed by its greatest ever scandal, the carnival was in full swing and it was business as usual on the race. How unnerving to hear the applause for Richard Virenque, exposed as a cheat and a liar and yet still as popular, more popular, than ever! How could this be?

And there was no escaping the sense of deja vu. To the right we had Lance Armstrong, resplendent in the famous yellow jersey. Across the barriers, we had an adoring public, loudly cheering him on. And in the middle, nine hundred journalists, bitterly divided. Except for the name and a few other changes we might easily have been in Atlanta re-living the nightmare of Michelle de Bruin.

Is the Lance Armstrong story the same one? It depends who you ask. The American media, so quick to lead the charge against de Bruin, have been slower to question a fairytale made at home. The yellow jersey, they fume, has been treated disgracefully. The French media should put-up or shut-up. Armstrong was a champion from the moment he entered the sport. He has never tested positive in his career and there is no evidence to suggest he has ever used drugs. (Ring any bells?)

But journalists from Le Monde, Liberation and L'Equipe are not so sure. So absolute has been the American's dominance of the race, so great the transformation from the athlete he was before, that in a year when so many champions (who never failed drug tests) have been exposed, there is a duty to question everything. And for the last three weeks, Lance Armstong has been the man under the microscope.

He was born in Dallas in September of 1971. The United States amateur champion in 1991, he turned professional with the Motorola team a year later after a 14th place finish at the Barcelona Olympics.

IN 1993, his first full season as a professional, he won a stage of the Tour de France at Verdun and two months later, at the age of 21, became the youngest World Professional Road Race Champion in cycling history.

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In 1995, he won the San Sebastian Classic and a stage of the Tour de France at Limoges. In 1996, he won the Fleche-Wallone classic, finished second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and was the fifth ranked racer in the world when he was suddenly diagnosed with testicular cancer that for a while, threatened his life.

After courageously battling with the disease, Armstrong returned to the peleton in February of 1998 with a promising (15th) finish in the Ruta del Sol. But the promise was short-lived. Demoralised with his form two weeks later in Paris-Nice, he abandoned the race after the second stage, returned to the United States and didn't race again until June when he returned to winning ways at the Tour of Luxembourg.

After a fourth place finish at the World Championships in Holland, just when he seemed to have returned to his best, his career took its second unlikely twist ... he just kept getting better.

In his four previous participation's in the Tour de France, Armstrong had finished just once 36th in 1995. Suddenly he was smashing the specialists in the time trials, free-wheeling away from the climbers in the hills and leading his nearest rival in the race by a staggering eight minutes. The greatest return since Lazurus? Again, it depends who you ask.

The thing that intrigues me most about his career is how, like Stephen Roche and so many of the great names who have conquered the Tour before him, the American has never encountered doping in the sport. In an extensive interview with L'Equipe on Monday he was asked if cycling still had a drugs problem? ``I have no idea,'' he replied. ``There is none in my team. And none in any of the teams I have raced with. The Festina affair was a huge surprise to me.''



And you never spoke about it in the peleton?

``Now that you mention it, no.''


Incensed by the innuendo, Armstrong insists that his life is an open book. He says he is clean and has no secrets and asks us to treat his achievements with the respect they deserve. Should we? Sorry, but for some time now I've had a problem with fairytales in sport. For the moment I'm reserving my right to applaud.

For me, the real hero of this year's Tour has been Christophre Bassons, the man they call ``Monsieur Propre'' (Mister Clean). Bassons, you may recall, is the 25-year-old Frenchman who refused, during his time with the Festina team, to join his pals in the daily queue for drugs. Not nearly as fortunate as Armstrong or Roche, there was no escape from drugs the moment Bassons turned pro.

TO take or not to take, that was the question. His decision to abstain had earned him the nickname `Monsieur Propre.' Bassons regarded it a badge of honour. His team-mates regarded it with disdain.

A stage winner at the Dauphine-Libere race in June, Bassons began this year's Tour, the so-called `Tour of Redemption' with high hopes of a repeat performance until the reality of a Tour at two speeds, a Tour where drugs were still being used, buckled his legs.

Writing a daily column for Le Parisien, Bassons spoke candidly about the continuing abuse. Too candidly for some. On the tenth stage to Alpe d'Heuz, Armstrong sought the Frenchman out to challenge his views. Two days later, bowing to pressure from his manager and team-mates, Bassons withdrew from the race.

The reaction to his departure spoke volumes for how little attitudes have changed. Armstrong could barely conceal his contempt when questioned by L'Equipe: ``My opinion of Bassons? I can tell you that he really loved you guys, you journalists. He adored seeing his face in the papers.''

And how depressing it was to hear Jean-Marie Leblanc (the race organiser) a week after denouncing Bassons as ``playing the martyr'' admit to Le Figaro that Virenque's late admission had proved a good thing for the race.

Virenque and Armstrong will share centre stage when the race reaches its conclusion in Paris this afternoon. You can just see their beaming faces on the podium, Virenque, in polka-dot, the delighted King of the Mountains. Armstrong with golden fleece, the proud conqueror of the race.

Smile please for the cameras lads. You deserve each other.

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