CALAIS, France, July 9 (AFP) Irish cycling legend Stephen Roche has denied that defending Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong's links with a notorious Italian sports doctor necessarily means the Texan rider is guilty of doping.
Armstrong, who aims to make an attempt on Chris Boardman's world hour record some time this year, has been forced on the back foot as he faced flak for revealing that since 1995 he had periodically collaborated with Michele Ferrari.
Ferrari's training methods included his allegedly administering to top athletes the banned performance-enhancer erythropoietin (EPO), for which he is due to stand trial in September following an investigation by Italian magistrates in Bologna.
Ferrari is a former protege of another alleged doping pioneer Professor Francesco Conconi, also subject to a judicial investigation in Italy.
But Irishman Roche, who in 1987 won the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and became world champion while with the Italian Carrera team, said that Armstrong's links with Ferrari could be entirely innocent.
"I haven't been following the events but I know (Michele) Ferrari and I know that apart from his work with EPO that he is a very, very good trainer," Roche told AFP prior to the second Tour de France stage here.
"In pure cycling terms you don't go for the world hour record on EPO alone."
Roche said that Armstrong's admission could be partial proof that he is innocent.
"Lance is a very intelligent guy, and he's courageous to make that decision to be honest and say that he is linked with Ferrari."
Armstrong was forced to issue a press release here Monday to explain the exact nature of his links with Ferrari.
The US Postal rider came under fire prior to the first stage Sunday after he revealed in an Italian newspaper his six-year link with Ferrari.
However in a statement released to only a handful of reporters late Sunday night the two-time Tour de France champion insisted that his involvement with Ferrari was "limited."
"Chris (Carmichael, Armstrong's coach) and I met Michele Ferrari during a training camp in San Diego, California, in 1995. His primary role has always been limited," Armstrong said.
"Since Chris cannot be in Europe on an ongoing basis, Michele does my physiological tests and provides Chris with that data on a regular basis.
"Chris has grown to trust Michele's opinion regarding my testing and my form on the bike."
Armstrong revealed to La Gazetto dello Sport Saturday that he had collaborated with Ferrari with a view to attempting the world hour record.
His untimely remarks threw a cloud of suspicion on the Tour de France favourite on the first day of the Tour, forcing US team director Mark Gorski into defending his team leader.
However, with the American team failing to answer to questions throughout Sunday, it was left to Armstrong to explain the exact nature of his relationship with Ferrari, who was also attacked in the English press by well-known investigative journalist Dave Walsh in the Sunday Times.
Walsh, who has been investigating Armstrong's progress in recent years, pointed to the 1993 world champion's visits to Italy on several ooccasions to visit Ferrari.
In an article entitled "Saddled with Suspicion", Walsh, who also aleeged two years ago that Roche had taken EPO an accusation that the popular Irishman fimrly denied, suggests that Armstrong's real success is down to EPO use, notably with the expert help of Ferrari.
However the Texan rider insists he's got nothing to hide.
" ... in my personal experience I have never had occasion to question the ethics or standard of care of Michele," Armstrong added in the statement.
"Specifically, he has never discussed EPO with me and I have never used it.
"I have always been very clear on the necessity for cycling to be a clean sport. And, I have firmly stated that anyone, including me, who tests positive for ban (sic) substances should be severely punished."
Indurain says Armstrong can win six Tours
Calais, France (dpa) Spanish legend Miguel Indurain said Monday that United States rider Lance Armstrong had the potential to win the Tour de France a record six times.
"I believe that Armstrong can win the Tour six times," Indurain said in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Indurain is one of four riders who won the world's most prestigious cycling race five times, the others being Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault as well as Belgian Eddy Merckx. The Spaniard won his titles in successive years 1991-1995.
Armstrong is bidding for a third straight title at the 2001 edition which started Saturday in Dunkirk. The three-week event ends July 29 in Paris, the deciding stages in the Alps and Pyrenees start next week.
Indurain, who retired from the sport in 1997, said that Armstrong and the 1997 winner Jan Ullrich of Germany were the top favourites for the title, but that he rated Armstrong a little bit higher.
"Both are in good shape. But perhaps the bigger experience gives Armstrong an edge," said Indurain, who is working for Spanish sports daily Marca on several days of the Tour.