It was like old times this morning outside Lance Armstrong’s team bus on stage 13 of the Tour de France, albeit a day ahead of the race proper, and more so for the assembled journalists and photographers than Armstrong himself.
Rather tentatively, Armstrong walked down the steps of the Le Tour One Day Ahead coach and into the sunlight at eight o’ clock sharp. A sometimes unruly swarm of around 50 reporters had gathered to meet him in the carpark of a Leader Price supermarket in sleepy, unsuspecting Vernet, a few hundred metres from where the Tour peloton will begin its 198.5km journey to Rodez tomorrow. The locals had apparently stayed in bed.
The first question came immediately: “Lance, how is it to be in France?”
“It’s nice to be back, yeah,” Armstrong replied, smiling.
It was then put to him that many who are following and riding the Tour itself have taken a dim view of his participation in former footballer Geoff Thomas’s charity ride, which aims to raise a million pounds for CureLeukemia.
“I understand people’s reactions,” Armstrong said. “I understand there are still some hurt feelings and that’s a process I’ll walk through for a long, long time.
“Honestly, Geoff started a great thing,” he explained when quizzed about his motives. “The cause is near and dear for him. He came to Austin & talked to me about what they’re doing and asked me to come. He made a real passionate effort so I decided to do it.”
Armstrong seemed less willing to dwell on the topic of doping and the scrutiny facing the current Tour leader, Chris Froome. One reporter suggested that Armstrong was fishing for sympathy when he said on arriving in France on Wednesday that he felt culpable for suspicions about Froome.
“No, that’s not true,” Armstrong said. “It’s not my job to give opinions about Froome. I watch the race just like everybody.”
If the Texan’s mood was serene, the same couldn’t be said about the atmosphere among the journalists. Voices were raised and collars ruffled as writers and photographers fought for their pound of flesh - their soundbite, their picture.
Away from the kerfuffle, the eleven other participants in Le Tour One Day Ahead were quietly, unfussily preparing for a hot, hard day on their odyssey towards Paris. One of them, 52-year-old Stephen Jones, told Cyclingnews, “This is a bit of a change to have all this press here. We’ve all worked incredibly hard for a bunch of amateur cyclists to get this far, and it’s just really nice of Lance to come out and support us. He seems like a great guy and I think he’s really happy to be here. I just hope he gets a good reception…”
Predictably, the dissenting voices were far louder and more numerous on social media than on the deserted, sunflower-flanked roads of the Tarn. Aside from a few curious glances and the lengthy cavalcade of media suiveurs, Armstrong seemed set to enjoy a more peaceful ride than anything he ever experienced at La Grande Boucle.
“Ride your bike wherever you like, but why steal the media’s interest from our guys who have never cheated,” said the Bretagne-Séché team on their official Twitter account.
On a drink-stop shortly before midday, Armstrong was challenged again about the wisdom and morality of his trip to France. “I shouldn’t be here? Laurent Jalabert is working on the Tour, no? We were all riding in an unfortunate era,” he said.
"They're all here: Jalabert... No? Why am I not welcome? Because I'm a doper? If that were the rule, the caravan would almost be empty. I don't mean the riders in this Tour, but in the press room, the commentary boxes, team cars. [To say that my bluff was bigger than others] is not very well informed. No disrespect to those guys. We all rode in an unfortunate era. But if you're going to apply a standard it has to be universal."
As Armstrong admitted this morning, he still has a long way to go to redemption - much further than the 377 kilometres ahead of him over the next two days.