PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica — Lance Armstrong made himself the uninvited guest at the Tour de France on Friday, coming back to haunt the 100th edition of the race and infuriating riders both past and present by talking at length in a newspaper interview about doping in the sport.
Armstrong told Le Monde that he still considers himself the record-holder for Tour victories, even though all seven of his titles from 1999-2005 were stripped from him last year for doping.
He said his life has been ruined by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that exposed as lies his years of denials that he and his teammates doped. He also took another swipe at cycling’s top administrators, darkly suggesting they could be brought down by other skeletons in the sport’s closet.
None of those comments broke new ground, but in answering questions from Le Monde — a newspaper he scorned when he was still competing — Armstrong ensured that his views on doping at the Tour would have maximum impact in France and couldn’t easily be written off as sour grapes being hurled at the race from afar. The respected daily is very much France’s newspaper of record. Its interview with the rider and his assertion that doping won’t be eradicated from cycling dominated French airwaves ahead of the race start on Saturday, causing dismay and anger in the sport desperate to prove that it has turned the page on his era of serial cheating.
The Tour’s director, Christian Prudhomme, suggested Armstrong was milking the race’s notoriety to further his own agenda.
“This is a very big tournament, just look around: There are 2,300 accredited journalists here, there are cameras everywhere. So if someone wanted to transmit a message, this is the time obviously, especially since everyone likes this kind of controversial statements,” he said.
Armstrong’s comments and the consternation they caused highlighted cycling’s dilemma: It is a sport fighting to give itself a cleaner, brighter future by combating drug cheats but much of that good work is being overshadowed by the dirty secrets of dopers from the past.
Pre-Tour, a drip-drip-drip of doping confessions and revelations about the Armstrong era have rained on the sport. Armstrong’s former rival on French roads, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, admitted to blood-doping for the first time. French media also reported that a Senate investigation into the effectiveness of anti-doping controls pieced together evidence of drug use at the 1998 Tour by Laurent Jalabert, a former star of the race now turned broadcaster.
Armstrong’s claim that it was “impossible” to win the Tour without doping in his era echoed what he already told U.S. television talk show host Oprah Winfrey in January, when he finally confessed. Then, he said doping was “part of the job.” The banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, wasn’t detectable by cycling’s doping controls until 2001 and so was widely abused because it prompts the body to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, giving a big performance boost to endurance athletes.
“The Tour is a test of endurance where oxygen is decisive,” Le Monde quoted Armstrong as saying. It published the interview in French.
Asked later by The Associated Press to clarify his comments, Armstrong confirmed on Twitter he was talking solely about the period from 1999-2005. He indicated that doping might not be necessary now.
“Today? I have no idea. I’m hopeful it’s possible,” Armstrong tweeted.
Still, his comments touched a nerve — both because cycling has since spent heavily on a pioneering anti-doping program and because Armstrong, once very much a boss of the peloton, is now a pariah.
“Those were cursed years for the Tour de France,” Prudhomme said. “When Armstrong said it was impossible to win the Tour during those years without doping, he is probably trying to find excuses for himself and say implicitly that there was nothing else he could have done.”
Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, manager of the Europcar team, likened Armstrong to a robber who tells a bank how it should be run.
“I don’t think it is nice that a guy who embodies a decade we should completely forget gives us lessons on how we should behave, while we were the ones who suffered during that time. It is almost surreal,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
In a statement issued in the name of competitors at the 100th Tour, a union representing European professional riders said: “Enough is enough!”
“It is disgraceful to be systematically dragged through the mud and be denigrated by people aiming to make money off our backs or seeking notoriety,” said the French wing of the union, the CPA.
A group of riders also asked for and were granted a meeting with the French sports minister before the start of Saturday’s first stage, so they can voice their unhappiness.
The renewed pre-Tour focus on cycling’s past has led to renewed appeals from some involved in the sport for a “truth and reconciliation” process — where those involved in doping past and present could air what they know once and for all, so cycling can then move forward
“Having it come out in dribs and drabs: You know, Laurent Jalabert this week, this guy (another week) — is ridiculous and painful and unnecessary,” Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate and manager of the Garmin-Sharp team, said this week before Le Monde’s interview.
“I really wish that we could get on with the truth and reconciliation committee. ... Let’s just move the sport forward, let’s get it out, let’s deal with it, let’s recognize it, let’s own it, let’s learn from it.”
Armstrong told Le Monde he would be prepared to appear before such a committee.
“The whole story has still not been told,” he was quoted as saying. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that unmasked him as a serial doper “did not paint a faithful picture of cycling from the end of the 1980s to today. It succeeded perfectly in destroying one man’s life but did not benefit cycling at all.”
He argued that doping would never be eradicated.
“I did not invent doping,” Le Monde quoted Armstrong as saying. “And nor did it end with me.”
Perhaps what was most interesting about Armstrong’s interview was the choice of newspaper: It was Le Monde that reported in 1999 that corticosteroids were found in the American’s urine as he was riding to the first of his Tour wins. Armstrong complained back then he was being persecuted by “vulture journalism, desperate journalism.”
Now seemingly prepared to let bygones be bygones, Armstrong was asked whether, when he raced, it was possible to succeed without doping.
“That depends on which races you wanted to win. The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping,” Le Monde quoted him as saying.
After Armstrong retired for the first time in 2005, cycling pioneered a so-called “biological passport” program, introduced in 2008, that monitors riders’ blood readings for tell-tale signs of doping. Riders in the top tier of teams were tested an average of nearly 12 times in 2012.
Pat McQuaid, president of cycling’s governing body, the UCI, called the timing of Armstrong’s interview “very sad.”
“The culture within cycling has changed since the Armstrong era and it is now possible to race and win clean,” McQuaid said in a statement.