Cycling: Yellow return for brave Armstrong

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The Independent Online
LANCE ARMSTRONG made an emotional return to the Tour de France yesterday to give the United States their first yellow jersey for nine years, and crown his fightback from cancer. The Texan averaged over 50kph on the 6.8km time trial course at Le Puy du Fou, clocking 8min 2sec to beat Switzerland's Alex Zulle by seven seconds.

Spain's world time trial champion Abraham Olano was 11 seconds slower in third place, but Britain's Chris Boardman, winner of three Tour prologues in five years, was fifth, 16 seconds off the pace. "It was an incredible sensation," said Armstrong who last rode the Tour in 1995, winning a stage at Limoges, two days after his Italian team-mate Fabio Casartelli died in a crash.

"Limoges was the most special day for me, even bigger than this victory. Make no mistake, though, this is special too." Armstrong faced death himself when, in October 1996, it was announced that he had testicular cancer. Two years later, he was back racing and winning. His crowning achievement last year was fourth place in the Vuelta a Espana, his first major tour for three years, followed by fourth in the world road race championship at Valkenburg.

"I can't take much credit for my being here. That goes to my doctors who discovered a cure and put me back together. It can be a fantastic example to other cancer patients. It is possible to return to a normal life and be better than you were before. Certainly, I am a better bike rider, and, I hope, a better person."

Before the Tour opened at this Vendee chateau, Armstrong said: "I'm in the best shape of my racing life." However, he was shaken by his time. "I couldn't believe it, and I'm surprised to win. My team-mates who rode before me said the race could be won after the climb. No one could afford too much effort on the hill."

Yesterday, Armstrong showed the form that helped him to a world title six years ago in Oslo, and made him a natural successor to Greg LeMond whose third Tour triumph was in 1990.

He missed last year's doping debacle, but rejected any thoughts about drugs. "Assuming we're all doped, that's bullshit. We wouldn't race in the Tour if we didn't love it. I'm here, and I hope the other 179 are too, to see cycling redeem itself. We can only do so much. We test as much as possible, but at some point enough is enough."

An hour before the start, all 180 riders were officially cleared by the "vampires", the derogatory title bestowed on the medical team who carry out the blood testing. Until the doping scandal, their early-morning calls were limited to random tests. Now the regulation has been rewritten for the three major tours. All competitors have to submit a blood sample before a pedal is turned, and if anyone has more than a 50 per cent level of red cells, they are laid off for 15 days.

On the Giro d'Italia Spain's Javier Ochoa and Italian Nicola Loda were excluded before the start in Sicily. Three weeks later, a random test registered the Giro leader Marco Pantani two per cent over the limit, and cost the Italian a second overall triumph.

The random tests were introduced two years ago "for the sake of riders' health", but it was also a safeguard against the illegal usage of synthetic erythropoietin (EPO). Its ability to regenerate riders' blood and thereby their recovery made it a tempting but dangerous agent as it can cause clotting in a healthy person. Synthetic EPO was developed to help anaemia sufferers such as kidney patients. Its usage, admitted by Festina team leader Bruno Roussel, forced the Tour organisers to evict the Festina team, including Frenchman Richard Virenque.

For almost a year Virenque insisted he was innocent. He was on the list of "undesirables" barred from this year's Tour until the Union Cycliste Internationale ordered his reinstatement. After a week of turmoil and embarrassment, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc went jogging with Hein Verbruggen, the UCI president who five days ago had ordered that Virenque should be in the Tour. "I'm not one to keep a war going," Leblanc said, but on Tuesday he was vehement. "We have been prevented from restoring the image of the Tour. It's a failure, but not one we will accept."

The UCI invoked the rule stating that bans on riders should be announced one month before the race starts. Virenque was shown the door two weeks ago, so he won the right to race. The ruling also allowed the return of Manolo Saiz, the manager of the Spanish team ONCE, who was highly critical of the Tour during the doping scandal.