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Lance Armstrong has vigorously denied allegations outlined in Tuesday’s edition of the French sports daily L’Equipe charging that the seven-time Tour de France champion used the performance-enhancing drug EPO to help him achieve his first Tour victory in 1999. “Yet again, a European newspaper has reported that I have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs,” Armstrong said in a statement on www.lancearmstrong.com.
“L’Equipe , a French sports daily, is reporting that my 1999 samples were positive. Unfortunately the witch hunt continues and the article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.
“I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.”
But his domination of the race since 1999, 18 months after his spectacular recovery from testicular cancer, has always aroused suspicion in France, which developed stringent anti-doping laws after the 1998 Tour was all but wrecked by doping scandals.
L’Equipe devoted four pages to its allegations, with the front-page headline “The Armstrong Lie.” The paper said that signs of EPO use were found in six urine samples submitted by the American during the 1999 race.
The governing body of world cycling did not begin using a urine test for EPO until 2001. For years, it had been impossible to detect the drug, called erythropoietin, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.
The tests on 1999 urine samples were done last year to help scientists improve their detection methods, the paper said.
L’Equipe said it matched urine samples from that Tour with medical statements signed by doctors, claiming that there were “characteristic, undeniable and consequent” signs of EPO in Armstrong’s urine tests.
A spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Agency told VeloNews Tuesday that the agency does “not have enough information at the moment,” adding that “it would be premature for us to comment on the specifics of this case.”
The newspaper said the tests were carried out by the national anti-doping laboratory in Châtenay-Malabry, where the urine test for EPO was originally developed. An official at the lab declined to comment on the report. L’Equipe , whose parent company is closely linked to the Tour, has frequently raised questions about how Armstrong could have made his spectacular comeback from testicular cancer without using performance enhancers. L’Equipe is owned by the Amaury Group whose subsidiary, Amaury Sport Organization, organizes the Tour de France and other sporting events.
A former L’Equipe journalist, Pierre Ballester, was co-author of a book published last year that contained doping allegations against Armstrong. Ballester teamed up with award-winning Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh.
In the book, “L.A. Confidential, the Secrets of Lance Armstrong,” one of the cyclist’s former assistants claimed that Armstrong once asked her to dispose of used syringes and give him makeup to conceal needle marks on his arms. At other points in the book, Walsh charged that Armstrong had admitted to using performance-enhancing substances in a meeting with doctors soon after learning that he had testicular cancer in 1996.
Armstrong has since sued The Sunday Times for libel after the British newspaper reprinted allegations in a review of the book in June of 2004. After a series of back-and-forth court decisions, the case is scheduled to go to trial in London’s High Court in November.
Tuesday’s revelations may give a big boost to the defense in the Times case as well as to the arguments put forward by attorneys representing a Texas insurance firm which has declined to pay Armstrong $5million for his sixth Tour voctory in 2004. The firm, SCA promotions, had delayed payment until company officials were satisfied that the allegations in the Wash/Ballester book were not true. Armstrong sued to recover the funds, but the case is as of yet unresolved.
Some studies have shown that a significant increase in red blood cell populations – hematocrit – can result in a performance boost of as much as 20 percent, substantial in a three-week event often decided by mere seconds. While the UCI had established an upper limit on hematocrit of 50 percent in 1997, it wasn’t until 2001 that the UCI used the urine test developed at the Châtenay-Malabry laboratory at the Tour.
Researchers at Châtenay-Malabry decided last year to retest urine samples, taken in 1998 and 1999, to fine-tune the testing system, according to the report. No indication was given in the story as to why there was a delay in revealing the results or about any preservation or safeguarding methods regarding the samples and their handling.
The newspaper said 12 samples had revealed EPO use, including six from Armstrong. It did not identify to which cyclists the other six positive urine samples belonged. “Of course it cannot be regarded as a positive test in the strict regulatory sense,” the newspaper said, claiming that there was no question of sanctions as a result of the findings.
But it said the findings could have consequences, with the World Anti-doping Agency studying possible legal channels. L’Equipe said that the new revelations could also be raised with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Throughout his career only one test showed indications of the presence of doping products. In the 1999 Tour, a urine sample showed small traces of cortico-steroids. Armstrong was cleared, however, when his U.S. Postal team, produced a medical certificate showing that he used a cream to ease the pain of a saddle sore. Even that sample, however, was below the levels that would have triggered a positive result at the time.
French suspicions were further fuelled in 2001 when Walsh reported in the Sunday Times that Armstrong had been working with notorious Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari, suspected in Italy of distributing and administering banned products to a number of top athletes.
In an interview with the Italian sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport, released the day before publication of Walsh’s report, Armstrong mentioned his “periodic collaboration” with Ferrari, who last year was handed a one-year suspended sentence for sports fraud. Upon the doctor’s conviction, Armstrong officially cut ties with Ferrari.
Armstrong denied taking banned drugs during a speech marking his retirement on the Champs-Élysées in July, saying people who did not believe in his success did not believe “in miracles, in dreams.”
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