- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

Lance Armstrong is leading the Pharmaceutical de France.

This is cause for celebration, if only because the Texan beat testicular cancer before he beat the world's best cyclists in 1999.

His victory against cancer is above suspicion. The suspicion surfaces around his other achievements.

It goes with the territory.

The riders are guilty until proven innocent, and even then, you can't be too certain.

Armstrong threatened not to compete in the French's made-over event this month if the skeptics persisted in asking impolite questions in his presence. He eventually relented. The skeptics did not.

He is at least as clean as everyone else, which is relative, considering the sport.

The sport inspires close friendships between athletes and doctors, an odd coupling, and odder still is the need for a medical waste team and an out-of-the-way dump site.

The motto of the sport is: Don't leave home without your prescription card.

Armstrong is wearing the leader's yellow jersey. With a lot of cyclists, the yellow jersey is unnecessary. Many of them glow in the dark.

News of Armstrong's relationship with a questionable Italian doctor caused a stir at the start of the race, mostly because of the doctor's relationship with EPO, a stamina-boosting hormone that needs only three letters to have the power of four in France.

Armstrong urged the various media parties not to judge him by the company he keeps, in this case an Italian doctor named Michele Ferrari, because there is more to cycling than EPO. The two men shared their insights on cycling, if not their views on the breathtaking beauty of the Pyrenees.

"I have never denied my relationship with Michele Ferrari," Armstrong said. "He has never discussed EPO with me, and I have never used it."

Armstrong, like the rest of the riders, donates blood and urine to prove his innocence. In the murky subculture of doping, where medical practitioners and cheaters meet, passing a test sometimes only proves that one doctor is sharper than the next.

This sentiment is both fair and unfair to the riders.

To be fair, race organizers have imposed more stringent anti-doping measures on the riders.

One measure invites a countermeasure, which is how the game within the game is played. Who's clean? Who's dirty? Who knows?

The event hasn't been the same since the Festina cycling team hit the fan in 1998. The discovery of a performance-enhancing hospital inside one of the Festina team cars confirmed the worst fears. The sport is still trying to clean up its version of the Exxon Valdez. Its rallying cry is: Just say no to EPO.

"Regardless of all the speculation and innuendo surrounding cycling, it's still a beautiful event," Armstrong said recently. "It's still fabulously popular, and the people respect it."

He means the French who pull themselves away from old Jerry Lewis movies to support the event.

But this is only the French, their roll-over proclivities a matter of historical record. It even took them four years to work through their pangs of sympathy before extraditing Ira Einhorn, a convicted murderer, to the U.S.

As it is, the French are stuck between two loaded acronyms, the USA and EPO. It must have been dilemmas like this one that pushed Brigitte Bardot off the deep end.

With the mountains out of the way, Armstrong is favored to claim his third consecutive championship. As the two-time champion, he is the principal face of the sport. He also is a victim, if he is as genuine as he claims to be.

There's the qualifier again.

This is the fundamental problem of cycling's grandest stage. You don't know what is real and what is contrived. The dopers don't just cheat each other. They also cheat their supporters.

So, in the absence of an unbeatable test, the cheers come with an asterisk.

That is the best Armstrong and the sport can expect.

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