One enjoyable daily Tour de France tradition is the pageantry of starting villages. A few hours before the day's start, organizers welcome riders, dignitaries, media, sponsors and special guests in large fenced outdoor arenas. Fans look from the outside in to see whom they can see.
Local officials read proclamations and each city pays handsomely to tout what it does best. Specialty cuisine is prepared in jumbo-size frying pans by animated chefs who often possess hilarious-looking moustaches. There's wine and cheese, pretty young women and period-dressed performers and music. And since it's France, there's always art.
The 1999 Tour de France, my third of 13 years at the event, was the year Lance Armstrong began his now-nullified seven-year victory reign. The main artist in the starting village each day drew large black-and-white one-panel caricatures. He nailed Armstrong.
There were other cyclists to poke fun at through the years the now-deceased Italian Marco Pantani, the baldheaded fierce climber with pronounced ears who won the race in 1998. And there was Jan Ullrich, the baby-faced, powerful German who possessed piston-like legs and won the event the previous year.
The cartoon portrayed Armstrong with a grotesquely chiseled and protruding chin, steely-focused, recessed eyes and wearing an oversize Texas-style cowboy hat. While pedaling up a steep incline, Armstrong had one hand on his handlebars. With his other hand he drank from an old-fashioned medicine bottle marked only with X's and O's.
The drawing was remarkable. Yet, at the time I felt it was unprofessional. Who was that artist, a Frenchman whose country hadn't won the event since 1985 (and still hasn't), to judge so quickly?
Like Muhammad Ali, Charles Barkley and Payne Stewart, when Armstrong was in his prominence, he was smart and volatile and polarizing an appealing combination for reporters. I saw what he did with cancer patients without photo opportunities. I saw him control press rooms. Armstrong lent his name to the foreword of "Tour de France for Dummies," a book I co-wrote in 2005. I liked him.
Nevertheless, the French began their attack on the American from Texas early and in earnest. How could Armstrong, formerly a power rider with a much different physique, return from 2 1/2 years off the bike and from near death via metastasized cancer and be en route to winning the Tour de France?
I never liked the drawing, and I've never forgotten it.
But now, with Armstrong's confession, the much-ballyhooed, two-part globally watched chat with Oprah Winfrey, is there a better sports example of art imitating life? How could the cartoonist have known the truth?
At its core, the Tour de France is simple. It's free for spectators; it's absent of turnstiles, television timeouts and ticket scalpers. There are no distasteful applause signs or bad rock songs playing to entice the crowd into a frenzy. Sunflowers, snow-capped peaks, serene vineyard-covered countryside. What's not to like?
The rider who gets from one designated city to another wins each day's task and the rider with the lowest accumulated time completing all of the stages wins the race. The difficulty, of course, is that 2,000 miles or so of mountains and inclement weather and small villages with narrow cobblestone roads and big companies with lots of money get in the way.
Armstrong's quest to win at all costs as he matter-of-factly detailed to Winfrey wasn't by any stretch the event's only dark and confusing mess. Dating to an era when caffeine and cocaine suppositories were all the rage, the goal just to compete in the three-week race has killed riders on and off their bikes.
A decade ago, Frenchman Sylvain Chomet directed "The Triplets of Belleville," an Academy Award-nominated animated feature. In the film, a young boy is raised by his grandmother. They live in the French countryside. The boy is unmotivated until his grandmother gives him a bicycle and a book about cycling and encourages him to dream of winning the Tour de France.
The boy trains to exhaustion. He eats mountains of pasta and his grandmother massages his gargantuan legs with an eggbeater. But the Mafia, portrayed by shifty-looking men in oversize square black suits, kidnaps the boy and other riders. They're taken to the city of Belleville where the cyclists' prowess is used in an elaborate gambling scheme.
Armstrong spoke in his two-night interview of being flawed. He used a tone of voice as if being flawed somehow made him different from the rest of us. And in one respect he's right.
Not everyone chooses to drink the elixir. But Armstrong, who knew right from wrong, did. He did so without qualms, guilt or remorse until it was too late. He became the artist's embellishment, the filmmaker's parody. He's the caricature representing everything wrong in sport.