Lance Armstrong, the French, and a mysterious bathroom break

It appeared to be just another minor contretemps in the ongoing — seemingly endless — French-and-Armstrong Wars.

However, it may prove to be a skirmish with considerable consequences. Lance Armstrong’s bid to return to the Tour de France this summer already faced a daunting array of challenges: age (37); a lengthy retirement from racing (since 2005); and injury (a broken collarbone suffered last month in a race in Spain). Now it may be derailed by a clash with French anti-doping authorities over a drug test administered to Armstrong following a training ride in southern France last month.

On the surface, it was a routine transaction, by his own count the 24th out-of-competition drug test administered to Armstrong since he returned to racing this year. And, as with all the others, the results were apparently clean. What apparently wasn’t spotless was the procedure. The Armstrong team kept the testing official waiting — while, they say, they verified his credentials — and Armstrong used the delay, estimated at 20 minutes, to go to the bathroom and shower.

His departure was a breach of testing protocol requiring the athlete to remain “under direct and permanent observation” from the time the test is announced until it is administered. Out of sight, for example, an athlete could void his bladder and replace it by injection with a clean sample. Violating the protocol, just like missing a drug test, can lead to sanctions. And Armstrong, in a video on his charity foundation Web site, says he fully expects the French to execute them: “There is a high likelihood that they will prohibit me from riding the Tour.”

Johan Bruyneel, manager of the Astana team with which Armstrong now races, told the Spanish sports daily MARCA that Armstrong had done nothing wrong and he complained that the French “want Lance’s head at any price.” He said it was laughable to think, given that the test included blood and hair samples as well as urine, that Armstrong could have used a brief absence to manipulate all the results.

The French, it is true, have never liked Lance Armstrong. It wasn’t just that he was an American beating the French — a record seven consecutive Tour triumphs — at its own, treasured game. After all, the French adored Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour, as he had the good grace to speak the language and to favor fans there with some Gallic gestures. Armstrong, by contrast, is prickly and more than a little arrogant. Even after he could speak French, he refused to accommodate anyone by doing it. In truth, riders, reporters and fans of all nationalities have found it difficult to embrace him, at least beyond his extraordinary talent.

But the battle here is about something more than just the settling of old scores. The sport of cycling — along with its premiere event, the Tour — has been devastated by doping scandals. And both circumstantial and anecdotal evidence suggests that Armstrong may not always have ridden — and risen — above it all. In 2005, the French sports newspaper, L’Equipe, reported that new tests on stored urine samples proved that Armstrong had used the endurance-booster EPO during his first victory in 1999. But the science was suspect, the chain of custody of the samples muddled and the leak to the press clearly unethical.

Still, the French authorities in cycling treat Armstrong’s reign as a blemish. And they have made it clear that a Tour comeback by its greatest champion is, above all, a potential embarrassment. For an event that hopes to move into a post-scandal era, Armstrong’s return would rekindle the drug debate and, inevitably, overshadow the race. Lance helped assure that by joining the Astana team, which was banned from the 2008 Tour for repeated doping offenses. (Bruynell, who managed Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team, heads up Astana’s new management team.)

Frankly, it’s hard to know whom to root for in this current mess. The French pursuit of Armstrong has been something of a cross between inspectors Javert and Clouseau and, however righteous its original motives, has taken on the character of a vendetta. The head of the international cycling federation has already risen to Armstrong’s defense and labeled the French handling of the most recent drug test unprofessional.

Still, Armstrong has always worn his drug test results as a badge of honor, almost as much as all those yellow jerseys. He is extremely smart, savvy and diligent. He knows every rule and protocol backwards and forwards and is acutely aware that he is always under the microscope — never more so than when he is riding in France. Breaking protocol is suspicious or, at the very least, the height of arrogance.

It is always tempting to give the athlete the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn’t always work out so well. There was this promising California high-school sprinter who, in the early 1990s, missed a drug test and, as a result, faced a four-year ban. The runner retained attorney Johnnie Cochran who, arguing that notification was faulty, got the sanctions rescinded. That athlete was Marion Jones and, more than a decade later, she would find herself at the center of the biggest doping scandal in track and field history.

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