It's preposterous, says doping-accused Armstrong

Lance Armstrong went on the offensive on Wednesday, saying it was “preposterous” for the director of the Tour de France to suggest the seven-time champion “fooled” race officials and the sporting world by doping.

He also took to task the French newspaper that accused him, the laboratory that released the urine samples in question and any officials of the Tour and sports ministries involved in putting the story together.

“Where to start?” Armstrong mused during a conference call from Washington, DC, when asked what he found most objectionable about the controversy. “This has been a long, love-hate relationship between myself and the French.”

L’Equipe reported on Tuesday that six urine samples Armstrong provided during his first tour win in 1999 tested positive for the red-blood-cell booster EPO. On Wednesday, tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc sounded convinced that Armstrong had been caught.

“For the first time—and these are no longer rumours, or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts—someone has shown me that in 1999, Armstrong had a banned substance called EPO in his body,” Leblanc told the newspaper.

“The ball is now in his court.
Why, how, by whom? He owes explanations to us and to everyone who follows the Tour. Today, what L’Equipe revealed shows me that I was fooled. We were all fooled.”

The Tour did not respond on Wednesday to a request by The Associated Press to interview Leblanc. But Armstrong said he had talked with him by phone.

“I actually spoke to him for about 30 minutes and he didn’t say any of that stuff to me personally,” Armstrong said. “But to say that I’ve ‘fooled’ the fans is preposterous. I’ve been doing this a long time. We have not just one year of only B-samples; we have seven years of A- and B-samples. They’ve all been negative.”

Armstrong questioned the validity of testing samples frozen seven years ago and how those samples were handled since. He also charged officials at the suburban Paris laboratory with violating World Anti-Doping Agency code for failing to safeguard the anonymity of any remaining B-samples it had.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that they have samples. Clearly they’ve tested all of my samples since then to the highest degree. But when I gave those samples,” he said, referring to 1999, “there was not EPO in those samples. I guarantee that.”

Armstrong saved his most withering criticism for L’Equipe.

“Obviously, this is great business for them. Unfortunately, I’m caught in the cross-hairs.”

A moment later, he added: “I think they’ve been planning it for a while. I think they much would have preferred to have done this at start of the Tour, or the middle, but for some reason, it was delayed.

“At the end of day, I think that’s what it’s all about ... selling newspapers.

“And,” he added, “it sells.”

L’Equipe, linked to the Tour de France through its parent company, has often raised questions about Armstrong and doping. On Tuesday, the banner headline of its four-page report was “The Armstrong lie”.

Armstrong was in Washington for a previously scheduled meeting with sponsors. He said their support is intact and that he is considering legal action to discover who leaked the details.

“In the meantime, it would cost $1,5-million and a year of my life. I have a lot better things to do with the $1,5-million ... a lot better things I can do with my time. Ultimately, I have to ask myself that question.”

Fellow cyclists came to Armstrong’s defence on Wednesday.

“Armstrong always told me that he never used doping products,” five-time winner Eddy Merckx told Le Monde newspaper. “Choosing between a journalist and Lance’s word, I trust Armstrong.”

Five-time champion Miguel Indurain said he couldn’t understand why scientists would use samples from the 1999 Tour for their tests.

“I feel the news is in bad taste and out of place, given that it happened six years ago after his first tour victory, and after he won six more,” Indurain wrote in the Spanish sports daily Marca.

“With the little I have to go on, it is difficult to take a position, but I think at this stage there’s no sense in stirring all this up.”

EPO, formally known as erythropoietin, was on the list of banned substances when Armstrong won his first Tour, but there was no effective test to detect the drug, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

The allegations took six years to surface because EPO tests on the 1999 samples were carried out only last year, when scientists at the national doping test lab opened them up for research to perfect EPO screening.

L’Equipe‘s investigation was based on the second set of two samples. The first set was used up during analysis in 1999; without it, disciplinary action against Armstrong would be impossible.

French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said he has doubts about L’Equipe‘s report because he has not seen the originals of some of the documents it cites.

“I do not confirm it,” he told RTL radio. But he added: “If what L’Equipe says is true, I can tell you that it’s a serious blow for cycling.”

Jacques de Ceaurriz, the head of France’s anti-doping laboratory, told Europe-1 radio that at least 15 urine samples from the 1999 Tour had tested positive for EPO. The year before, there were more than 40 positive samples, he said—reflecting how widespread the drug was when riders thought they could not be caught.

The lab said it could not confirm that the positive results cited in L’Equipe were Armstrong’s. It noted that the samples were anonymous, bearing only a six-digit number to identify the rider, and could not be matched with any one cyclist.

However, L’Equipe said it was able to confirm the samples were Armstrong’s by matching the cyclist’s medical certificates with the results of positive doping tests bearing the same sample numbers.

Armstrong has insisted throughout his career that he has never taken drugs to enhance his performance. In his autobiography, It’s Not about the Bike, he said he was administered EPO during his chemotherapy treatment to battle cancer.

“It was the only thing that kept me alive,” he wrote.—Sapa-AP

AP sports writer Chris Lehourites in London contributed to this report

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