Too Far Behind To Win Race, Armstrong Wins Fans

Lance Armstrong is in second place but is not expected to win this year's Tour De France. But along the way, he's been winning over new fans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The riders on the Tour De France faced their toughest mountain stage today. And Lance Armstrong appears too far back to win. He says he will now help his teammate, Alberto Contador, take the title. You will recall that there's been a lot of rivalry on this team and much question about which talented rider would be the one that the others would work to get across the finish line. That seems settled now. But at 37, Armstrong is still surprising the younger riders as they approach the finish line on Sunday.

Eleanor Beardsley is following the race in the French Alps.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Crowds lining the road under a baking sun cheered and beat on the barriers as the riders came whizzing down the mountain and over the finish line in the outlying town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice. A lesser-known Spanish rider won the stage but the crowd was focused on the battle between the two superstars of the Astana team.

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Unidentified Man: Alberto Contador.

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BEARDSLEY: Spain's cycling hero and the predicted tour winner, Alberto Contador, kept the yellow jersey. But the big surprise was with Lance Armstrong's performance. Tuesday's stage through Switzerland, Italy and France included two of the tour's highest peaks. Up in the mountains Armstrong showed the grit and determination he's famous for.

Despite falling well behind the leaders at one point, he mustered a dazzling comeback alone and finished the race neck and neck with Contador. Gil Simon(ph), who is following Armstrong for the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, says the Astana team is working to get Armstrong onto the winner's podium in Paris alongside Contador.

Mr. GIL SIMON (L'Equipe): (Through translator) After what we saw today, he could finish in second or third place in Paris. And that would be an extraordinary feat after more than three years away. Hardly anyone succeeds at a comeback like this in sports. If he does, he'll be adding to his legendary status.

BEARDSLEY: Armstrong's dramatic comeback in the competition between him and his teammate are fascinating fans. The rivalry has helped boost TV audiences and made Armstrong the tour's star attraction again. But the word inside the tour is that Armstrong is back to polish his image. He no longer goes everywhere with bodyguards. He takes off his sunglasses and signs autographs, and he smiles.

BEARDSLEY: One group of spectators from the Netherlands is sitting in front of their camper on the side of the road. An American flag hangs out front. That's for Lance, says Luke Denison(ph).

Mr. LUKE DENISON (Spectator): He is unique. Yeah, I love Lance Armstrong.

BEARDSLEY: His friend, Richard Verbrook(ph), says while he loved the old aggressive Lance, the new one isn't bad either. And he admires Armstrong's support for cancer research.

Mr. RICHARD VERBROOK (Spectator): It's a different plan from three years ago. He's easier to talk with.

Mr. DENISON: Relaxed.

Mr. VERBROOK: Yeah, he's relaxed. So that's better.

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BEARDSLEY: But no matter who you support, the tour is a French summer tradition and it's about having a good time. An accordion jazz band plays in a village square along the route and thousands of people sit in the grass on the side of the road with their picnics waiting for the riders to flash by. The more active tour fans whiz up and down the official route on their own bikes. Richard Veekman(ph) from Sweden said he attempted one of the climbs just to see what the riders experience.

Mr. RICHARD VEEKMAN (Spectator): It looks so easy on TV, but when you see it in real life, it's really, really hard.

BEARDSLEY: Frenchman Christian Denac(ph), who follows the tour every summer, is doing crossword puzzles while he waits for (unintelligible).

Mr. CHRISTIAN DENAC (Spectator): (Through translator) When July is over and the tour finishes, I'm in a state of withdrawal afterwards. I feel like I've lost part of my family.

BEARDSLEY: Today's 17th stage is said to be the hardest, with five tough climbs and another downhill finish. Armstrong fans say that if he can hold his own in the mountains today, they're sure he'll be standing with the winners on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, France.

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