Armstrong flies flag for drug-free Tour

Armstrong in action during the Prologue where he finished four seconds behind winner Christophe Moreau  Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport
Lance Armstrong prefers to be known as a cancer survivor rather than a millionaire cyclist who has survived the drug monitoring, rumors and innuendo within his beleaguered sport to win the Tour de France these past two years.

He has been close to death and recalls vividly the painful treatments he was forced to undergo when testicular cancer was diagnosed in late 1996. He has since married, has a child, with twins due later this year, and makes his feelings known at every opportunity about those who soil the image of the sport.

"A person has to be crazy to cheat at this race," he said yesterday, and last month he commented: "The naivety of those riders in the Tour of Italy is beyond understanding."

Skepticism over Armstrong's ability to complete the Tour de France without using drugs in the light of his medical history, and pressure in the media in France, led the French judiciary to demand the testing of his and his US Postal Service team's frozen urine from last year's event under new EPO drug-testing conditions. Yet such scant publicity was given to the results when they proved negative that Armstrong insisted an official judicial announcement was made.

"Everything has been done to fight doping and this is in the interest of the riders," Armstrong said in Dunkirk this week, as he prepared to embark on his campaign for another victory, one which would lift him into an elite category of only eight riders who have won the Tour three or more times.

All week the riders have been called in for tests to check hemoglobin levels, urine samples have been analyzed for hormone or steroid misuse, competitors' recent medical histories have been looked at to confirm that natural body fluids have not altered dramatically all year, and all the checks have officially been reported as being negative.

The Australian rider, Stuart O'Grady, even found an extremely keen drug-control team from his country waiting to take urine samples. Such is the pressure on officialdom, sporting and judicial, since the Festina affair of 1998 revealed that some teams used systematic doping programs to win races.

There are no complaints from the innocent, and sympathy for the accused is waning fast, so today when the short prologue time-trial livens up the drab streets around Dunkirk's docklands, most will be convinced they are once more watching a battle between top athletes.

Ironically, it will make no difference to the winner whether drugs are used or not, as in a race lasting 21 days talent will always outpace hope and a needle. Armstrong is the favorite and few can see him being beaten, although he fears Francesco Casagrande, of Italy, Spain's Joseba Beloki, and the Olympic champion, Jan Ullrich, from Germany.

The 189 riders start today, with Armstrong going last in the five- mile time trial to decide the first leader. Last year, Britain's David Millar won a longer version and led for three days, but although Millar is hopeful again, Armstrong or Australian Bradley McGee may have the edge.

The race ends in Paris on July 29 after its journey through Belgium and across the Alps and Pyrenees, over a route well used by France's greatest spectacle since the event was first held in 1903.

Despite the drugs scandals the event is more popular than ever and attracts a million people a day to the roadside, even though France are still looking for their first winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

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