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A cycling saga goes on, and on, and on.
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.