Andreu - seen here at Paris-Nice in 2000 - said his brush with EPO use was limited, but wanted to come clean t ...

Andreu – seen here at Paris-Nice in 2000 – said his brush with EPO use was limited, but wanted to come clean t …

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Two former U.S. Postal riders admitted taking EPO in preparation for the 1999 Tour de France, the first of seven one by their teammate Lance Armstrong, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

In a story posted on its website, the newspaper said Frankie Andreu, a now-retired lieutenant of the U.S. Postal Service team, and another rider who did not want his name disclosed both admitted wrongdoing in interviews with the Times.

“Everybody’s afraid to talk because they don’t want to implicate themselves but there are guys out there who love the sport and who hate doping. They are the guys who have to speak up if the sport is going to survive,” Andreu said.

The admissions darken Armstrong’s first Tour de France triumph and come in the wake of Armstrong fighting off claims that an updated test of a 1999 sample applied by a French laboratory showed the US cycling star was positive.

“There’s always going to be the guy who denies and denies that he’s ever used something,” Andreu said. “Nobody really knows what that guy is really doing when he goes home and closes the door.”

Armstrong, who turns 35 next week, began a run of seven Tour triumphs in a row in 1999 before retiring last year. American Floyd Landis won last July’s Tour but tested positive and is fighting to clear his name.

Armstrong and Landis have denied taking any performance-enhancing substances.

Armstrong made an amazing recovery from life-threatening cancer to become the greatest champion in Tour history and a symbol of hope for those with cancer but he has fought numerous doping allegations during his reign.

Andreu, 39, said he took EPO for only a few races and said his admission of being a dope cheat is because he thinks doping is hurting cycling, saying that doping and denial by riders could turn off fans and sponsors permanently.

“There are two levels of guys – you got the guys that cheat and guys that are just trying to survive,” Andreu told the Times.

Both Andreu and his unidentified teammate told the newspaper they never saw Armstrong take any banned substance.

Neither man ever failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs, they told the Times, casting doubt upon whether any negative test from 1999 could be considered proof that any rider was not a dope cheat.

Both riders who spoke to the Times said they felt they had to take EPO simply to make the team in 1999. Andreu would not say exactly when he took EPO while the other rider said he did not use EPO during the actual Tour de France.

“I tried my best never to use performance-enhancing drugs,” said Andreu. “I did make a couple of bad choices, but that was a long, long time ago. It’s not something to be proud of. I did use EPO, but only for a couple of races.”

Andreu said he was introduced to drugs in 1995 when he and Armstrong were teammates for Motorola, saying some riders felt they could no longer compete with Europeans whose rapid improvement was rumored to be aided by EPO.

Andreu’s wife Betsy told the Times she found a cooler containing EPO in her refrigerator before the 1999 Tour and became angry but bowed to her husband’s plea to take EPO to help finish the race and then never use it again.

Betsy Andreu told the Times she blames Armstrong for pressuring teammates to use drugs, saying her husband “didn’t use EPO for himself, because as a domestique, he was never going to win that race.

“It was for Lance.”

Armstrong, nearing the 10th anniversary of his cancer diagnosis, appeared on television coverage before the Texas-Ohio State college U.S. football showdown last weekend and is preparing to compete in the New York Marathon in November.

One of Armstrong’s former teammates, Tyler Hamilton, is set to complete a two-year ban for blood doping on September 22. Another former key man for Armstrong, Spaniard Roberto Heras, is serving a two-year EPO ban. Another former Postal rider, Floyd Landis, is facing a two-year suspension if results of his positive test for testosterone are upheld in hearings in the U.S. later this year.