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AP Blog: Tour Town Pauses to Cheer Zidane

July 6, 2006

AP Correspondent John Leicester is covering the Tour de France, and he and other AP writers will be filing periodic reports on the race, the three-week cycling extravaganza that gets underway on Saturday.


THURSDAY, July 6, 3:50 p.m. local

CAEN, France, Zenith Concert and Show Hall

If Zinedine Zidane was seeking to be elected France’s president today, he’d win with a North Korean polling score, 110 percent.

Admittedly, we’re straying from cycling here. But let’s assume for a moment that covering the Tour de France means reporting both on the Tour and France. And today, France’s advancement to the soccer World Cup final on a match-winning penalty kick from Zidane is THE topic of the day.

Saint-Quentin, the small northeastern French town where the Tour rolled in yesterday afternoon, erupted last night at the final whistle. Fireworks. Cheering fans. Honking of car horns. Waving blue, white and red Tricolors. It was a snapshot of how the whole of France must have celebrated.

A crowd of young men, many apparently from immigrant backgrounds, marched past the sports hall where the Tour’s press center was set up, shouting the names of the black players on the squad. They also yelled ``Zidane is French!″ (His parents are Algerian.)

The French victories in this World Cup are the only time I can remember seeing crowds taking spontaneously to the streets in joy, rather than in anger or protest, in the four years I’ve lived here. Some now cheering likely were among those torching cars and battling police in riots that shook depressed inner cities last fall, or shouting in rage against the government in mass protests against labor reforms in the spring.

Balls in the back of the net against Brazil and now Portugal have given the France we’ve traveled through an unmistakable lift.

On a midnight drive from yesterday’s finish to our hotel, a highway toll collector had a small TV in her booth. It was against the rules, she said, but there was no way she was going to miss the match. Besides, she added, she had no tolls to collect, because everyone was watching Les Bleus, and ``it’s not every day″ that they make the final.

Even police officers manning radar speed traps on the highway to Caen in Normandy, the finish of today’s stage 5 of the Tour, were in a jovial mood. We suggested they shouldn’t be handing out speeding tickets the day after Zidane added extra glitter to his already legendary status. They laughed.

_ John Leicester


MONDAY, July 3, 5 p.m. local

ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE, Luxembourg, Salle Omnisports Henri Schmitz

Note the dateline _ a sports hall in Luxembourg. For those who imagine that covering the Tour de France is all glamour, think again. For the press corps, the Tour is really a tour of the sports halls, village halls and exhibition centers of France and its neighbors.

Often close to the finish line of each daily stage, they serve as press rooms for us hacks, with televisions to watch the race, tables for our laptops and freezers full of water to keep us hydrated in the intense heat. As sports centers go, this one’s not bad. One of the worst I worked in was in the mountains last year. The press room was set up on an ice rink. We froze.

_ John Leicester


MONDAY, July 3, 4 p.m. local

ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE, Luxembourg, Salle Omnisports Henri Schmitz

Lance Armstrong is no longer on the Tour, but the bad blood between him and France’s leading sports newspaper, L’Equipe, runs as strong as ever.

As part of its extensive Tour coverage, L’Equipe runs a daily column on what’s new with the 20 teams left in a race that lost two squads and its favorites to doping allegations even before it began.

But in its section on the Discovery Channel squad that Armstrong raced for, L’Equipe prints this: ``The American team does not want to communicate information on its riders to L’Equipe.″

This all goes back to the doping allegations that the newspaper printed last August, after Armstrong won his seventh Tour, under the shock headline ``The Armstrong Lie.″

It reported that six urine samples provided by Armstrong during the 1999 Tour, the first he won, tested positive for the banned red blood-cell booster EPO.

Armstrong, a frequent target of L’Equipe, vehemently denied the allegations, and a Dutch investigator appointed by the sport’s governing body cleared the cyclist in a report in May.

All this reminds me of a slogan I saw on a T-shirt worn by a fan waiting outside Discovery’s team bus the other day. It read, ``Lance 7, French Media 0.″

_ John Leicester


SATURDAY, July 1, 3:15 p.m. local

STRASBOURG, France, the Palais des Congres

Spare a thought for cycling fans. They shell out big bucks to buy themselves the same fancy bikes as their sporting heroes, the same tight and colorful shirts, and they travel across countries to see them race. Then, word comes down that they might be doped. Cheats, not role models.

Cora Kneissl, 14, came home from school in tears Friday after the rider she’s dreamed about for years, her fellow German and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, was kicked out of this year’s race for suspected doping.

``I was very angry,″ she told me today as the Tour got underway without Ullrich, Italian Ivan Basso and other riders withdrawn by their teams because of suspected links to a doctor in Spain who allegedly helped athletes dope.

On her chest, above the neckline of her black dress, Kneissl had written the words ``Fans-Gegen-Doping.de″ in black ink. That is German for ``Fans against doping″ and the address of a Web site by cycling fans opposed to cheating.

But why is it that even though many fans suspect that doping is rife in the sport, they still turn out in droves? From talking to supporters who crowded around riders’ team buses at the start, it seems that some would rather ignore the issue.

``It’s been clear for a long time that everyone doped,″ said Wolfgang Hosterbach, an auto engineer who came from Stuttgart in Germany, favoring the Tour over the soccer World Cup that his country is hosting. He suggested that doping should be legalized to level the playing field. May the rider with the best doctor win.

But others said their patience was wearing thin and that this might be one scandal too many. ``It’s frustrating, it’s one thing after another,″ said Gary Bennett, who drove down from the north of England to be here. ``It puts you off a bit really.″

_ John Leicester


FRIDAY, June 30, 6 p.m. local

STRASBOURG, France, the Palais des Congres

Lance Armstrong must be happy he’s sitting this one out.

This Tour de France was meant to be all about finding a successor to the Texan who dominated the world’s most glamorous cycling race for seven straight years and who is now retired.

Instead, it will be remembered for the major doping scandal that led to pre-race favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich being barred from the competition today, throwing the Tour into chaos.

The upside, if there is one, is that cycling looks to be taking the fight against doping seriously by going to such extraordinary lengths. After all, neither Ullrich nor Basso have been found guilty of a doping violation. Instead, their names popped up in a Spanish probe of a network that allegedly supplied riders and other athletes with banned drugs and doping know-how. Both riders say they were not linked to that network.

But the mere suspicion of involvement was enough to see them sent home under a cloud of disgrace.

Cycling had been salivating at the prospect of Basso and Ullrich fighting it out on French roads and mountains. Without them, will the Tour lose some of its appeal, or will fans applaud organizers’ zero-tolerance of cheats?

Watch this space.

_ John Leicester

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