July 15, 2004 04:00 PM

The start of the Tour de France does not usually generate quite so much heat and passion: Defending champ Lance Armstrong left the gate last, set a blistering pace and wound up with the second-fastest time of the day among the 188 competitors.

At the finish line, girlfriend Sheryl Crow, wearing a white coat with a leopard lining and trembling from the excitement of the race, threw her arms around her man and shared a kiss that one French sportswriter described as “fiery, impetuous and nearly unending.” A French kiss, as it were, says PEOPLE in its latest issue.

“She’s a great girl,” says Armstrong, who has three young children from his former marriage. “She’s been there every day for me.”

He has needed her slim shoulder to lean on, because going into this year’s Tour, Armstrong, 32, has been dogged by questions – mainly whether he can take an unprecedented sixth consecutive crown.

And in a book published recently in France, Armstrong’s former masseuse alleged that he had asked her to get rid of used syringes, triggering speculation that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. (Armstrong has angrily denied the allegation, and his lawyers have filed suit.)

Above all, however, there’s the issue of whether his romance with the singer Crow, at 42 ten years his senior and who has formerly dated Eric Clapton and actor Owen Wilson, will prove to be the distraction that dethrones him: Will she become, wondered one columnist, “the Yoko Ono of cycling”?

Lance’s mom doesn’t think so.

“Sheryl is a superpositive influence on Lance,” says Linda Armstrong Kelly. “She’s onboard and she’s telling Lance, ‘Go kick some booty.'” Her own feelings about Sheryl? “I adore her,” says Linda. “She’s so dear, loving and caring.”

You May Like