Lance Armstrong riding for Team Astana signs the start list for
the 2009 Giro d'Italia. The Giro was part of Armstrong's build-up
to the controversial 2009 Tour de France where he finished third.
AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati
Update: For further discussion on this article, read the follow-up here.
In 2009 Lance Armstrong came back to France with a new team and new tactics, but French anti-doping officials are up to their old tricks. The French police have been sniffing around Astana's trash like a suspicious bloodhound, desperate to find evidence for a doping case that will stick.
After the 2009 Tour de France, the French police appropriated Astana's discarded syringes, bandages, and other medical supplies from a biological waste firm called Cosmoly. What they found were a "large quantity" of syringes and supplies for intravenous transfusions, which may point to banned-drug use, according to the French newspaper Le Mond.
Team Astana itself has had a checkered history with the Tour. In 2007, the Kazakh-backed team dropped out of the race in disgrace when their star rider, Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan tested positive for blood doping. Later that year, two more positive tests (one for synthetic testosterone use and another for blood doping) came to light, and Astana was banned from 2008 tour. Despite all this, and even considering that the 2009 Tour champion, Alberto Contador might also be implicated if these medical supplies were to contain any incriminating evidence, this investigation is undoubtedly aimed primarily at Lance Armstrong. For reasons that Armstrong believes have to do with national pride, the French have had it out for the seven-time Tour de France champion since he first won the race ten years ago, according to Armstrong.
In 2002, French officials tried a similar tactic; taking U.S. Postal's discarded biological waste from the remote dumpster where they threw it between stages. Investigators claimed that the syringes would provide evidence of Armstrong's alleged drug use, but lab tests produced no decisive proof. The case was eventually thrown out for lack of evidence, but according to Armstrong in his autobiography Every Second Counts, the French were reluctant to close the case even though they had nothing incriminating on him. Referring to the 2009 suspicions, Armstrong said, “I’m confident that our team has been racing clean."
Armstrong has seen the business end of numerous doping allegations coming from journalists, former teammates, rivals and employees, and even past Tour champions. However, no single accusation has held up to legal scrutiny, and Armstrong's lawyers have fought back tooth and nail in each case. While many may believe Armstrong's defensive behavior is indicative of sinister secrets, Armstrong points out that he is "the most tested athlete in the world." None of his hundreds of in-competition and out-of-competition drug tests have resulted in enough evidence for a successful doping case (although some results have aroused suspision). If he's cheating, he's better at getting away with it than he is at cycling.
The medical supplies recovered from Astana's garbage are being tested at a private Swiss lab called Toxi-Lab. So far they have found no evidence of banned substances, but if any performance-enhancing drugs are detected, the needles will be cross-referenced against riders' DNA and the guilty riders will be banned. Greg Lemond has said, "If Armstrong's clean, it's the greatest comeback. And if he's not, then it's the greatest fraud." If Armstrong is clean, then for the sake of cycling and sports everywhere he should be revealed for what he really is. However, if he is riding dirty, then he is also a criminal genious for avoiding doping convictions after eight Tours under the microscope. If French anti-doping officials were to finally catch Armstrong after a decade of following his every move, it would be like if Wiley Coyote finally caught the Road Runner. As much as you want the coyote to catch the bird, it's hard not to cheer for the artful dodger road runner.
Read the follow-up article The polarizing effect of Lance Armstrong for further discussion.