- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

PARIS — Faced with yet another report that he cheated his way to a Tour de France victory, Lance Armstrong responded yesterday the same way he has since the doping whispers began during the first of his seven straight wins: “I never took performance-enhancing drugs.”

In a four-page article headlined “The Armstrong Lie,” the French sports daily L’Equipe printed copies of documents suggesting that six urine samples he provided during his first championship in 1999 tested positive for the red-blood- cell booster erythropoietin, or EPO.

The drug was on the list of banned substances at the time, but there was no effective test to detect it.

Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the report published yesterday appeared “credible” and meticulously researched, adding that Armstrong must have a chance to rebut the claims.

“We are very shocked, very troubled by the revelations we read this morning,” Mr. Leblanc told RTL radio.

Armstrong, a frequent target of L’Equipe, vehemently denied the accusations.

“Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues, and tomorrow’s article is nothing short of tabloid journalism,” Armstrong wrote on his Web site. “I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs.”

The accusations surfaced seven years later, because EPO tests on the 1999 samples were carried out only last year, when scientists at a lab outside Paris used the frozen samples for research to perfect EPO testing. The national anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry said it promised to hand its finding to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), provided they would not be used to penalize riders.

L’Equipe’s investigation was based on urine B samples — the second of two samples used in doping tests. The A batch was used in 1999 for analysis at the time. Without the A samples, any disciplinary action against Armstrong would be impossible, French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said.

Although it was banned in 1990, 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, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

Jacques de Ceaurriz, the head of France’s anti-doping laboratory, which developed the EPO urine test, told Europe-1 radio that at least 15 urine samples from the 1999 Tour had tested positive for EPO.

Separately, the lab said it could not confirm that Armstrong’s was among the positive results. It noted that the samples were anonymous, bearing only a six-digit number to identify the rider and could not be matched with the name of any one cyclist.

However, L’Equipe said it was able to make the match.

On one side of the page, it showed what it said were the results of EPO tests from anonymous riders used for lab research. On the other, it showed Armstrong’s medical certificates, signed by doctors and riders after doping tests — and bearing the same identifying number printed on the results.

“It will be very interesting to see what [the International Cycling Union] does and what the U.S. Cycling Federation does and what Lance Armstrong has to say,” WADA chairman Dick Pound said. “If the evidence is seen as credible then, yes, he has an obligation to come forward and specifically give his comments, especially after his previous comments that he has never used drugs.

“If anything were found, we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t even exist in 1999. But it’s important that the truth must always be made clear.”

Armstrong has been one of sport’s most inspiring stories — a cancer survivor who rose to the top of one of the world’s most grueling events. However, he has been dogged by questions in the French press about whether he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Armstrong in July won the last of his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles, then retired. In his parting speech, he addressed the people who think he was doping.

“I’m sorry for you,” Armstrong said. “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”

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