Cycling: Tour de France - French media doubt `clean' race

Tour de France: Armstrong reinforces position as leader while Italian takes stage victory despite collision with fan
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THE FRENCH press strongly implied yesterday - without making outright allegations - that Lance Armstrong's crushing domination of the Tour de France is drugs-assisted, rather than sporting or miraculous.

Although the Texan has never failed a drugs test (he passed another one yesterday) and said that the latest press comments were "not fair", almost all French newspapers suggested yesterday that his superhuman performances in recent days cast new doubt on the tattered claims that this is a clean Tour.

One rider, Christophe Bassons, writing in a newspaper column, said Armstrong's performance had "disgusted" many of his rivals. He suggested that their anger was so intense that they might even break the sport's tradition of omerta and speak out.

Some accusations were in easily broken code, like the banner headline in L'Equipe "A Deux Vitesses...", which means "at two speeds" or "in different gears". French riders had complained before the Tour that the more rigid, continuous drugs tests introduced in France this year would turn the 1999 Tour into a contest at "deux vitesses" between the French and the rest.

Also writing in L'Equipe - traditionally rather passive about drugs in cycling - Jean-Michel Rouet called Armstrong a "Martian". The top French rider Laurent Brochard, champion of the world in 1997, was now 135th in the race, an hour behind "the Martian", he said. "Are they practising the same sport?"

Other comments were even more pointed. One unnamed team doctor in Le Parisien drew attention to Armstrong's extraordinary recovery from the testicular cancer which had kept him out of cycling for two years. There had never been a previous case known to medical science, the doctor said, of a sportsman returning stronger from cancer treatment.

"He should make his medical records public. It would be a great boost to cancer patients everywhere," the doctor was quoted as saying.

Armstrong, who has always vehemently opposed the use of performance-enhancing drugs, said that he was "surprised" by what he had read in the newspapers. "It is not fair," he told a television interviewer. "I don't understand that there are doubts about my performances. I am in great shape and I have worked a lot."

Johan Bruyneel, the manager of Armstrong's US Postal team, said: "Lance is never tired of working. He is always asking for more, and he has lost 11 kilos since his illness."

Liberation suggested that the breakneck speed of the whole peloton on the first mountain stage gave the lie to claims that this was "finally a fresh-water Tour".

"Armstrong has doubtless woken, with a start, all the little world of cycling who have been charmed by the masterly penny-whistle concert of the tour organisers."

The most direct and telling comment came, also in Le Parisien, from a young French cyclist who is, to some people, the real hero of the 1999 Tour. Bassons, 25, who is riding his first Tour, famously refuses to take drugs and is not afraid to say so. He was a junior member of the Festina team which was at the centre of the drugs scandal which almost wrecked last year's race. Judicial investigators say that he was the only team member to refuse drugs. They also revealed that he was mocked and resented by his team-mates for his stand.

Throughout the Tour, Bassons, now with the La Fran- caise des Jeux team, has been writing for Le Parisien a sometimes moving, and often amusing, personal chronicle of his experiences in the race. Yesterday he stated that "Armstrong's demonstration" on Tuesday, when he accelerated on the final climb and came in 31 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, had "disgusted many riders".

"For the moment, the riders have shut their mouths because they are fearful for their trade but sooner or later they are going to speak out," Bassons wrote. "When that day comes, I hope that there will be plenty of microphones nearby." He also revealed that at the start of Tuesday's stage he was being verbally abused in the peloton by some other riders, who did not like his comments on drugs. (He told a TV interviewer before the race that it was impossible to win a stage in the Tour "with pedals alone".)

"As for me," he continued, "I'm going to keep my mouth open, even if it means that I can only stay another year in the sport I love ... If everyone shuts up, NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE!"

Is all this just sour grapes? Resentment that, once again, a foreign rider - an American of all people - looks likely to win the Tour de France? It is clear from Bassons' comments that the suspicion of drug-taking should hang over many riders and not just Armstrong.

The truth is that the French press, and public, cannot easily be accused of cycling chauvinism. Although, obviously, they love French riders to do well, they have generously recognised the achievements of a host of foreign riders in recent years.

The anxieties and suspicions which are beginning to surface in the French press - even in the cheer-leading L'Equipe - betray a fear that the 1999 Tour, the so-called "rebirth Tour", may yet end in scandal and farce. The performances of some riders suggest that they have taken the "no-drugs" promise at least half seriously. They now suspect, to their fury, that many of their rivals have not and that they may be getting away with it.