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CYCLING This is a chance for Lance to charm France



Published: Tue, July 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Armstrong is trying to win over the fickle fans.

PAU, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong is trying to capture more than just a seventh straight Tour de France title. He wants to win over the French fans, too.

So far, it's working.

The American cyclist has regularly left the team bus during this year's Tour to greet hordes of people, who push and shove to get a glimpse of him.

He recently stopped and rode over to a screaming fan who was calling for him. Armstrong chatted with her while her husband joined the conversation.

"Lance, give us your cap," the man said in broken English, laced with a heavy regional accent.

Armstrong handed it over, causing the excited couple to jump up and down and hug each other.

"We love you Lance. We love you," they shouted as he cruised back down to the Discovery Channel bus.

Big challenge

Over the years, gaining support from the French public has proved tougher than beating his rivals up the mountains or in the time trials.

"My objective is to win the hearts of the French fans," said Armstrong, who will quit the sport at the conclusion of the race in Paris on Sunday.

The Tour took a day off Monday.

Armstrong has been more open, less stressed, and happier to share the limited time remaining in his stellar career.

"He's definitely more relaxed, the pressure's off him a little bit," said team director Johan Bruyneel, who has worked with Armstrong on every Tour win.

Armstrong said a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he won his sixth Tour, eclipsing the record shared by five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Heading into today's 112.2-mile, 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau, Armstrong leads Ivan Basso by 2 minutes, 46 seconds; 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich by 5:58, and Alexandre Vinokourov by 9:38.

Armstrong has one tough mountain stage in the Pyrenees remaining in addition to two other modest climbing stages, a flat stage and a time trial.

"We have a decent lead with a big time trial to come, where maybe we can take a little more advantage," Bruyneel said Monday. "But it doesn't matter if it's 30 seconds, all that matters is to win."

Hostility

Armstrong's sometimes brash dominance of the 102-year-old race is one reason why he has encountered hostility. In recent years, politics have also played a part.

France and the United States have had an uneasy relationship since they disagreed over the Iraq war -- tensions that have spilled over on Armstrong.

"I'm a guy who almost always defends this country and these people in a time when there's not a lot of people defending this country of France," Armstrong said.

France has not always treated him kindly -- be it in aggressive newspaper columns or in narrow mountain passes where fans stand inches away from his face.

Armstrong doesn't hold a grudge.

"I can't say enough good things about it [France]. I genuinely love this country, the culture, the history. I don't know what else I can do," he said. "Of course, four or five people a day seem to know it all and have a lot of nasty things to say. But ultimately, I think we have a fine relationship."

His charm seems to be working this year, and people appear to have warmed up to him more.

"You have to respect him," cycling fan Philippe Marsan said. "Look what he has achieved and what he has come back from. How can people not be moved by that? Yes, there are people who dislike him, but I think a lot of it is jealousy."




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