Just Call It The Tour De Lance

It is not the best of times to be an American in Paris. The dollar is down, you can't find a freedom fry anywhere in town and you might possibly encounter--incroyable!--a touch of Gallic rudeness. Witness the boorish treatment of Serena Williams by the Parisian crowd at the recent French Open. Now another superstar U.S. athlete is planning a trip to Paris next month--and, despite recent history, his welcome is more likely to resemble Lindbergh's than Williams's. But Lance Armstrong never permits himself to think too far down the road. "I need to concentrate on the task at hand, trying to win the Tour de France," Armstrong said in an e-mail interview with NEWSWEEK. "The success of our team in the prior four [Tours] has nothing to do with the next race."

But it has everything to do with his legacy. The Tour de France will be celebrating its 100th anniversary when the 23-day trek begins next week. If the race ends as expected, with Armstrong's taking a victory lap down the Champs-Elysees, he will join four European legends as five-time winners--including Spain's Miguel Indurain, the only one to win five years in a row. It would be the penultimate glory for Armstrong, who has made cycling's premier race his singular passion. "Lance is motivated by making the history books," says Chris Carmichael, his personal coach. "But he knows you can't start thinking about that sixth until you've won the fifth."

Armstrong is quick to recite the litany of things that could go wrong: illness, injury, equipment problems. (He made no mention of the added strain of recent marital problems; he and his wife, Kristen, reconciled in March after a brief separation.) "This race is so unforgiving," says Carmichael. "One bad day in the mountains can take it all away." But in past races Armstrong has had great days in the hills, where he has crushed rivals en route to victory. And this year's 2,109.55-mile course--with seven mountain stages, one more than in 2002--is decidedly to his liking. "If there's no crisis, everyone knows they'll have to go through Lance to win," says his coach. Tyler Hamilton, a member of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service-sponsored team for three tour triumphs, knows that better than most. "I try to think about Lance's weak points, but what's incredible is he doesn't have any."

Even before this current Franco-American ice age, Armstrong's relations with the host nation were never especially cordial. The French didn't cotton to the brash Texan who whipped their heroes, but never adopted Continental manners and balked at adding a oui or a merci to his verbal repertoire. Tensions were exacerbated by a hostile European press, which refused to accept that anyone, let alone a Yank, could rebound from life-threatening cancer to dominate their sport without illegal drugs. But the French government has finally dropped its investigation into alleged drug use by Armstrong's team during the 2000 Tour. "[It] was a joke and it went away in the dark of night because, try as they did, there was nothing to find," Armstrong says. "The good news is that we are finally moving past all the suspicion."

And quite possibly on to rapprochement. This season Armstrong has seen the French fans embrace his effort "100 percent." Armstrong's team believes they have finally come to appreciate the American's devotion to their most beloved sporting event. They also think cycling fans want to send a message that the tour will always transcend government squabbles. "The small divide between French and Americans doesn't affect the feelings the French have for the cyclists from the U.S.," says Jean-Marie Leblanc, manager of the 2003 Tour. "There is a respect for such excellence." The word excellence doesn't do justice to Armstrong's tour record. His margin of victory has averaged almost seven minutes, more than two minutes better than Indurain's during his reign. If Armstrong again tramples this elite field, respect may finally evolve into reverence. And set the stage for next year, when Armstrong can prove that he is truly in a class all by himself.