Mellow Armstrong could finally win French hearts

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MONACO --- For all of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France victories, he still hasn't won the hearts of the French. That might be about to change.

"A lot has been made about that relationship between them and myself," he told The Associated Press by phone this week. "The comments are not necessarily in line with reality."

Armstrong is awaiting his first Tour since 2005. The 37-year-old Texan often put off the French while winning seven consecutive titles with a self-confidence seen as arrogance, and an unapologetic crushing of rivals that seemed to drain the race of the suspense the fans crave.

There are signs, though, that the hostility Armstrong was greeted by in some previous races will be absent this time.

A poll published in Thurs-day's edition of L'Equipe showed 72 percent of respondents said they were "not bothered" by Armstrong's presence on this year's Tour.

The race starts Saturday and on Thursday, cycling governing body UCI carried out pre-race blood tests of all the expected riders as part of a tough new anti-doping program, and the 20 teams were presented in a ceremony at the principality's port.

Armstrong, in brief comments to a French TV reporter at the presentation, said he felt "a lot of excitement" and "a heckuva lot of nerves" before the three-week jaunt over nearly 2,140 miles.

Hundreds of fans cheered when the Texan and his Astana teammates were presented before the fans Thursday.

In the AP interview, Armstrong said he has also noticed a warmer reception this year.

He said he never received any negative comment during his pre-race preparations, when he spent four days in the Alps previewing the mountain stages.

Armstrong will be on the starting line in Monaco in a situation he has never experienced. He will have to battle Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the overwhelming pre-race favorite, for the role of team leader.

But in his more mellow state, even some competitors are warming to the veteran.

"They (the riders) know I'm older, they see that I'm more relaxed," Armstrong said. "Before, I never had riders asking for pictures or signatures. Now that happens. It's pretty interesting."

UCI TESTS BLOOD OF RIDERS

MONACO --- Cycling's governing body said all 180 riders expected to start the Tour de France -- plus one -- have undergone planned pre-race blood tests.

The UCI said nine riders from each of the 20 teams were tested Thursday along with Quick Step sprint star Tom Boonen.

The Belgian rider has appealed to French sports authorities in hopes of overturning a ban by Tour organizers after Boonen tested positive twice for cocaine in less than a year.

The blood tests are part of UCI's anti-doping program known as the "biological passport" that provides individual profiles of riders' blood parameters.

The Tour starts Saturday in Monaco and finishes July 26 in Paris. The race's image has been severely damaged by numerous doping scandals in recent years.

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