Lance Armstrong’s French Disconnection

Illustration by Emily Thompson

Illustration by Emily Thompson

Back in 2006 at the ESPY awards, Lance Armstrong took a jab at the French national soccer team. “All their players tested positive,” he said, “for being assholes.” A year earlier, when Armstrong hosted Saturday Night Live, a faux French heckler interrupted his monologue, which had begun with jokes about “French” drug testing. The fake Frenchman asked Armstrong for a urine sample and then yelled in a Pepe Le Pew accent, “Eet’s our race! Stop weening eet! J’ACCUSE!!!” (Hilarious!) In 2009 Armstrong appeared (for the millionth time) on the cover of Outside magazine. The big, bold teaser read: “On his critics: ‘Pardon my French, but !@#$ them.’”

These were just a few volleys in a long-standing strategy to recast the Armstrong doping investigation as a failing in the French national character. It was a “French witch hunt,” Armstrong said again and again. He never failed to throw in the national epithet. The “French officials” had it in for him, he said. In 2005 he told PBS, “I try to ask people to sit in my seat and say, ‘okay, you know, a guy in a French — in a Parisian laboratory opens up your sample, you know, Jean- Francois so and so, and he tests it. Nobody’s there to observe.’” Jean-Francois so and so, the enemy.

News organizations joined in. They printed articles about “France’s Duel with Lance Armstrong” and about Franco-American relations on the Tour. Some reporters pointed to politics. This was, after all, a time when some were still eating Freedom Fries. Plus, Armstrong was a friend of George Bush (another Texan who lied about chemical evidence). Some reporters chose to characterize Armstrong’s friction with the French as a clash of similar temperaments. Armstrong was “taciturn, arrogant, distant,” said the Miami Herald in 2003. “He was, in other words, very French.” Others went to great pains to show how Armstrong reached out to French fans. Even then, Armstrong’s conciliatory notes were a bit sour. “In times of Franco-American tension,” he said after winning his 5th Tour in 2003, “I think it’s great that Americans come to this country and stand on the side of the road and stay in their hotels and go to their restaurants and drink their wine and visit and support their country.” In other words, you frogs are lucky to have us here.

Now that we know that the French were right — Saddam had no WMDs, and Armstrong was a liar, a cheat, a bully, and worst of all, a bore — do we all owe Jean-Francois so-and-so an official apology? It’s true that many French fans (at least judging by the media) disliked Armstrong for reasons beyond doping. He kept his distance from fans, traveling with bodyguards; he didn’t learn much French; and he didn’t pay much respect to French tradition. But it wasn’t just his personality that galled (pardon the pun). It was his style of victory. Armstrong brought to the Tour a kind of “Taylorism”, a systemic, scientific, team-oriented, single-minded domination which left little room for spontaneity or flair. Armstrong’s teams controlled the peloton, wearing down opponents, and preventing exciting breaks. Then they delivered their leader to victory, often without drama. Sure, he was the best, but he seemed more like a good manager than an audacious athlete, not like the cannibal Eddie Merckx or even the boyish Greg Lemond, an American the French could get behind. Now we know for sure that Armstrong’s Taylorist enterprise had a chemical arm, and Armstrong looks more like a maniacal drug company executive than a bike rider.

Perhaps the French were exhibiting some national characteristics when they rejected Armstrong, but these weren’t prejudice and arrogance, but instead careful attention to evidence and reasonable moral judgment. All the evidence pointed to one thing all along: Lance Armstrong is, and always was, an asshole.

nice piece Aus! reasonable judgement (excepting Mali that is)

— Tyson    Jan 24, 05:07 PM    #

Yeah, I guess Mali, the Algerian war, Jerry Lewis might suggest less reasonable judgment.

— Austin    Jan 24, 11:22 PM    #

Good article, Austin. He was a cheat, a liar, and he had to stay one step ahead of everybody else, or else they would find out his horrible crimes.
Now he has been found out…

— Tom Farrelly    Jan 25, 11:41 AM    #

This is the smartest thing I’ve read about Lance Armstrong (and, for better or worse, I’ve read a lot).

— James Williams    Jan 25, 03:48 PM    #

Thank you, James. I must admit I didn’t even watch the Oprah interview. I couldn’t bear it.

— Austin    Jan 25, 06:07 PM    #


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