A New Climb For Lance Armstrong

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In boxing it would qualify as a seriously late hit. Having ended his pro career with a seventh straight win of the Tour de France last month, Lance Armstrong might have thought he'd proved himself once and for all. Mais non —at least not according to the French sporting daily L'Equipe. Its four-page cover story on Tuesday, headlined "The Armstrong Lie," claims to have pieced together what it says is "incontestable" evidence that in 1999—the year of his first Tour victory—Armstrong used the banned substance EPO. "The extraordinary champion, the escapee from cancer, has become a legend by means of a lie," wrote L'Equipe.

To make that case, the newspaper published the results of tests conducted since December 2004 by the French National Anti-Doping Laboratory. With the aim of fine-tuning their methodology for spotting EPO, which improves the blood's capacity to transport oxygen, researchers there tested frozen, anonymous urine samples from racers in the Tour de France of 1999, two years before any tests for EPO had been authorized for the tour. Twelve of the samples tested positive for EPO. L'Equipe, which is owned by the same organization that owns the Tour de France itself, matched the numbers of the samples with original registration papers from 1999 and found that six of the positive samples were from Armstrong. Who were the others? L'Equipe leaves that question up to others, claiming that the "lively suspicions" over the years generated by the Texan's stellar success justifies their concentration on Armstrong "from a journalistic standpoint."

On his website, Armstrong called the article evidence of "a witch hunt" and wrote, "I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs." Steve Madden, editor-in-chief of the American magazine Bicycling, isn't buying it either. "I just have a really hard time taking anything L'Equipe says about this seriously," says Madden. "They didn't know this six weeks ago? I don't believe it. It seems to me they've got a valid news story when they come out and say that in 2005, Lance's A and B sample tested positive. I saw him come out of doping control on the last day in Paris. If that comes back positive, then it's news. Right now, it's just more sniping." But Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, disagrees: "Here seems to be much harder and more cogent evidence than has been the case in previous allegations," Pound told TIME. "It's the first time in any of these cases involving Armstrong that it isnít he-said-she-said stuff."

Still, since the tests were not ordered up officially, there is scant prospect that they can be the basis for any move to challenge Armstrong's past victories. The World Anti-Doping Agency has championed the cause of retroactive testing, but it has no authority to go back to 1999. So far, his fellow cyclists have generally been supportive: "In any case," said his perennial runner-up, the German Jan Ullrich, "Armstrong remains the greatest racer of all time." Still, these charges mean that even after getting out of the saddle, Armstrong faces more questions.