Cycling: Tour de France - Armstrong turns on his critics

Tour de France: American is cleared of drug smears and complains of persecution by French media
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The Independent Online
LANCE ARMSTRONG all but secured his victory in the Tour de France yesterday but was not a contented man. As the race's second and final day in the Pyrenees ended with the American leading by more than six minutes, he denounced further newspaper reports linking him with the use of banned drugs.

Speaking within an hour of the finish of yesterday's stage - which was won by Spain's David Etxebarria but saw no significant changes at the top of the overall classification - Armstrong claimed he had been "persecuted" by elements of the French media. The latest allegations followed a series of reports suggesting that his efforts in this year's Tour might be drug- assisted, which Armstrong vehemently denied at a press conference on Monday.

His comments yesterday followed a report in Le Monde, the respected French daily newspaper, which said that corticoids, which are on the list of drugs banned by the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, had been found in urine samples provided by Armstrong and a number of other Tour riders. The newspaper said that the traces of the drugs - which are cortisone derivatives and can help speed recovery from injury - were very small and well within legal limits.

The UCI confirmed yesterday that small amounts of the drugs had indeed been found in urine samples provided by Armstrong, but said that the American had a medical prescription to use a cream to cure a skin allergy. The cream contains a banned corticoid, triamcinolone. Riders are allowed to use corticoids if they are prescribed for medical reasons.

Describing the press reports as "vulture journalism", Armstrong said: "I have been persecuted. The amount of corticoid was so minute that it was there one day and not the next. The traces are so small it has absolutely nothing to do with performance.

"When I was asked `Would I think of taking something', I thought of pills, inhalers and injections. I did not consider skin cream to be taking something. Maybe it was a mistake on my part. This is not a doping story, but Le Monde are here for doping stories, and we are here to race our bikes."

Armstrong asked a Le Monde representative: "Are you calling me a liar or a doper?" He added: "I understand that more journalists are at the Tour and I understand these stories happen because of last year. I only ask, and wish, that some people would be more professional."

Armstrong and his US Postal team management were so angered by the stories that they asked the UCI to break its code of confidentiality to clarify the situation. A UCI statement said that Armstrong had used a cream called Cemalyt, which contains triamcinolone, and that it had received a medical certificate from him.

The French anti-doping laboratory said that all those riders who had been tested and shown traces of corticoids had prescriptions for medicines containing the forbidden substance.

The UCI said that all tests carried out on Armstrong and other Tour riders had been negative. It said that while the use of corticoids is forbidden, medicines with such a base can be allowed to treat eye, ear or skin problems, or to treat asthma, rhinitis or allergies. Riders must, however, provide a prescription. The Belgian champion, Ludo Dierckxsens, was sent home by his team earlier this week after not telling his team that he had been treating tendinitis with a corticoidal substance.

Armstrong was never far from the action over the final four Pyrenean mountains yesterday. He was among the pursuers who reeled in Russia's Pavel Tonkov, Italy's Alberto Elli and Etxebarria after they had been clear of the field for more than 100 kilometres.

Etxebarria was not finished, however, and six days after his long solo ride ended in triumph at St Flour, the tiny Spaniard produced a winning sprint at Pau. He edged out Colombia's Carlos Contreras with Elli third after six had escaped the clutches of Armstrong and Fernando Escartin, his Spanish shadow. Escartin set the pace over the Soulor and Aubisque mountains to draw back the leading trio and his reward was to trim Armstrong's lead by four seconds.

The American, sitting pretty with an advantage of six minutes and 15 seconds, declines to claim victory, although there are now only four days of racing left and the mountain stages are over. "Anything can happen - a fall, who knows. Wait until Paris," Armstrong said.

He added: "It has been hard over the last four days. In the last two days I have suffered more from the stress on the bike, and some journalists wanted me to crack, but I was not going to crack for them."


16th STAGE (Lannemezan to Pau, 192km, 119 miles) Leading positions: 1 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE 5hr 17min 7sec; 2 C Contreras (Col) Kelme; 3 A Elli (It) Telekom; 4 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Casino; 5 J-L Arrieta (Sp) Banesto all same time; 6 M Serrano (Sp) ONCE +5sec; 7 W Belli (It) Festina 21; 8 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei; 9 F Garcia (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros; 10 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto; 11 L Armstrong (US) US Postal; 12 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme all s/t; 13 F Bessy (Fr) Casino +2:13; 14 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 15 M Piccoli (It) Lampre; 16 P Lanfranchi (It) Mapei; 17 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros; 18 L Madouas (Fr) Festina; 19 M Lelli (It) Cofidis; 20 D Nardello (It) Mapei all s/t. Selected: 25 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +2:13; 34 R Virenque (Fr) Polti s/t; 60 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +13:05; 77 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole +26:20.

Leading overall standings: 1 Armstrong 78hr 2min 53sec; 2 Escartin +6:15 3 Zulle +7:28; 4 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco +10:30; 5 R Virenque (Fr) Polti +11:40; 6 Nardello +13:27; 7 Casero +13:34; 8 Olano +14:29; 9 Belli +15:14; 10 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +18:35; 11 Tonkov +19:26; 12 Etxebarria +19:31; 13 A Peron (It) ONCE +20:17; 14 B Salmon (Fr) Casino +22:55; 15 R Meier (Swit) Cofidis +23:37; 16 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +24:15; 17 T Hamilton (Fr) US Postal +25:24; 18 Lanfranchi +26:03; 19 Contreras +26:46; 20 Elli +28:06. Selected: 5 Virenque +11:40; 8 Olano +14:29; 11 Tonkov +19:26; 55 Boogerd +01:33:59; 129 Boardman +2:44:19. Points standings: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 244pts; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole 232; 3 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat 158; 4 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole 142; 5 G Hincapie (US) US Postal 139. Mountains: 1 Virenque 273; 2 Elli 226; 3 Piccoli 198; 4 Escartin 194; 5 Armstrong 193. Team standings: 1 Banesto +234hr 31min02sec; 2 ONCE +6:11; 3 Festina +13:17; 4 Mapei +13:31; 5 Kelme +13:44.