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By Agence France Presse
Allegations of doping against seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong appear to be continuing, with a former soigneur from the American’s team adding fuel to the scandal which has rocked cycling.
Dutchman Ron Jongen, who worked with Armstrong’s former team US Postal in 1999 – the year in which it has been alleged he tested positive six times for banned blood booster EPO (Erythropoietin) – claims he witnessed “strange occurrences” during that year’s race, which was Armstrong’s first victory on the Tour following his recovery from cancer 18 months previously.
Jongen said he witnessed three Spanish doctors arriving at the team’s hotel in a car for regular but discreet visits.
The 42-year-old Dutchman, who worked with US Postal between 1999 and 2000, told Dutch daily newspaper Limburgsdagblad that the doctors “traveled in a green car which didn’t have the stickers from US Postal on it. But while the team cars always parked at the front of their hotel, the doctors always parked their car at the back. And they always made sure they didn’t sleep in rooms which were on the same floor as the riders.”
A number of “doctors” have been sacked from cycling teams in past years for misuse of substances, although some professional riders are known to still maintain contact with doctors who are able to prescribe and administer illegal drugs.
Jongen, 42, said that until recently he maintained good relations with Armstrong – who has been forced on to the defensive since French sports daily L’Equipe exposed details of his alleged drug use.
The Dutchman even claims he overheard Armstrong’s team manager Johan Bruyneel, who is still manager of the Discovery Channel team talking about his riders’ red blood cell (hematocrit) level before the 1999 Tour de France.
Using EPO, a naturally-occurring hormone which is also synthetically produced and has the advantage increasing the volume of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the blood, also automatically raises the hematocrit level.
It means that drugs cheats constantly have to check their red blood cell count to make sure it stays below 50 – the permitted threshold set by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Jongen claims he overheard Bruyneel talking about his riders’ hematocrit level during a final team meeting before the opening prologue of the Tour de France in 1999.
“Bruyneel said ‘they’re all just under 50 (the permitted threshold)’. Then, when he saw that I’d heard what he said he put his finger to his lips as if to signal that I was supposed to keep quiet about it.”
Armstrong, who has denied all drug use throughout a career which has nonetheless courted suspicion, retired after he won the Tour for a seventh time in July.
However the 33-year-old’s plans for months of relaxation after several years of suffering on the bike has been short-lived.
Armstrong has largely won the support of his compatriots in the past weeks, many of whom believe there is a French conspiracy to sully his reputation. However the evidence appears to be piling up against the American.
Armstrong admitted in 2001 that he was working closely with Michele Ferrari, an Italian sports doctor who last year was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence for malpractice by a court in Bologna.
Ferrari, the former doctor of several cycling teams – most notably Gewiss in the mid 1990s – was convicted of sporting fraud in Italy last year.
Accusations similar to Jongen’s emerged last year from another former soigneur, Emma O’Reilly.
O’Reilly claimed in a book “LA Confidential – the Secrets of Lance Armstrong” that she had lent Armstrong make-up to cover syringe marks on his arm.
The Irishwoman also claimed she was instructed to collect drugs for the American at a meeting in a car park.