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Lance Armstrong, the French, and a mysterious bathroom break

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

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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