By Justin Davis, Copyright Agence France Presse 2004
Five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong fended off questions Thursday about doping allegations two days ahead of the race’s prologue time trial.
The 32-year-old American, who will saddle up for Saturday’s 6.1km time trial without the yellow jersey in a bid to win a record sixth crown, said he had little comment to make about the book, “LA Confidentiel – les secrets des Lance Armstrong”, which cites several former colleagues who allege that he has taken the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO).
One of the book’s co-authors, David Walsh, was present ,and Armstrong reiterated his vow to fight the award-winning Sunday Times of London journalist and his French co-writer, Pierre Ballester, in the courts.
Asked if the controversial allegations had upset his race preparations, Armstrong replied, “No.”
“But I’ll say one thing, since (one of) the esteemed author(s) is here,” he continued. “In my view, extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof. Walsh and Ballester have had four or five years working on the book, and they’ve still no proof. But I will spend however long it takes and whatever it takes to show the allegations are unfounded. I have already engaged lawyers in England and France.”
Armstrong also responded to questions about the Tour’s recent hard line with riders who have been or are implicated in doping cases. Tour organizers have recently excluded David Millar, the Cofidis team leader who has admitted taking EPO, along with his teammate Cedric Vasseur – who was implicated but never found guilty in a recent drugs affair.
“It’s a different predicament,” said the 32-year-old Armstrong. “But I can’t judge. All I know is that race organizers have taken a very aggressive approach against doping … to make the race better for everyone involved. I can’t really comment.” Armstrong is again the overall favorite for the July 3-25 race, which will feature mainly flat stages in the first week before descending through the Massif Central towards the Pyrenees.
The third week is where the real battle for the yellow jersey takes place, with two time trials – one of which is a 15.5km climb to the legendary Alpe d’Huez summit – being held either side of two grueling days in the Alps.
Jan Ullrich, Germany’s 1997 Tour winner and five-time runner-up, is Armstrong’s main rival, he confirmed, although the American admitted he would be keeping his eye on a good handful of other possible contenders.
“Jan seems to be better prepared than other years, so he’s the biggest rival. But there are between six and 10 others who are very close, guys like Tyler (Hamilton), (Iban) Mayo, (Ivan) Basso and (Haimar) Zubeldia. They’re all pretty close.
“Unfortunately, we lost Vino,” he added, referring to Alexandre Vinokourov, last year’s third-place finisher, who won’t be racing following an injury in the Tour of Switzerland. “But the race will be very tight.”
It remains to be seen whether Armstrong’s preparations for the race, which he came close to losing last year to Ullrich following a series of mishaps, including dehydration on a time trial and a crash in the Pyrenees, have been disrupted by the controversy surrounding the new book. The American appeared intense as he talked to reporters, most of whom seemed uninterested in raising the doping issue, and he even managed a stumble as he came down from the stage.
But for now, Armstrong doesn’t want to hear the word “legend.”
“For me the word ‘legend’ is more than six letters,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about that right now. The Tour’s not a one-day race, and we just have to take it day by day.
“I still believe that it’s the best man who wins in Paris. Even if I’m second, it’s the best man who wins the race.”