Lance Armstrong's admission that the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who is currently charged with supplying illegal drugs to athletes, has been one of his advisers for six years threatened to overshadow the countdown to the Tour prologue yesterday in Dunkirk.
The double Tour winner told an Italian newspaper: "I know Ferrari is believed to be the devil incarnate in Italy, but I have found him to be an honest individual and a great professional."
Armstrong denied that being linked to a doctor who is the subject of two Italian investigations for supplying a variety of drugs, including human growth hormone, would badly affect his image. "Who isn't being investigated right now in cycling?" the 29-year-old commented. "I'm being investigated by the police in France. I personally believe Ferrari has been badly misunderstood."
Armstrong went on to list what he called his "technical staff", including the five-times Tour winner Eddy Merckx as well as his directeur sportif at US Postal, Johan Bruyneel.
Ferrari was, the Texan claimed, in control of his diet, tests, altitude training and use of a hypobaric chamber – which creates artificial high-altitude conditions, causing an increase in red blood cell production – while a Spanish doctor, Luis Garcia Del Moral, was responsible for his overall physical condition.
Armstrong also admitted that what he called a "limited collaboration" with Ferrari would increase as he built up for an attempt on the hour record this autumn. "He is an expert in that area," he said.
Indeed, among those named by the inquiry as injured parties in the investigation in Bologna against Ferrari are Tony Rominger, the Swiss rider who added over two kilometres to the hour record in 1994 under Ferrari, as well as three Giro D'Italia winners, Ivan Gotti, Gianni Bugno and Evgeni Berzin.
Given that fans and press have been unaware of Armstrong's six-year Italian connection – during which time he has recovered from cancer and gone on to win the Tour de France twice – the contradictions in statements made by him and different members of his "inner circle" are only now beginning to emerge.
During Armstrong's first race of the season, the Tour of Murcia, for example, his directeur Bruyneel had denied his team leader used a hypobaric chamber. "I have been into his room every night, so I would have seen it if it was there," he said.
While the Bologna investigation will see Ferrari go on trial in October, for now Armstrong's domination of the Tour is regarded as only a little short of overwhelming.
"It will be a difficult race," Armstrong cautiously predicted yesterday shortly before the event started with the 8.2-kilometre prologue. "One of the toughest stages in the Alps, which includes Alpe D'Huez, is followed by a mountain time-trial, and that will make it very complicated to know how hard to ride on the first day."
He also named Jan Ullrich, three times second in the Tour and a winner in 1997, as the rider most likely to cause him problems: "I wasn't surprised he won the German National Championships recently, he's strong and has lost weight. He's a favourite."
However, five stages including mountaintop finishes in six days of racing, and over 100 kilometres of time-trialling, could well make this more challenging than the previous two editions.
The mountains are over a week away, and attention is now focused on the chances of the young Briton David Millar repeating last year's prologue victory.
"I have been thinking about it since I crossed the line last year, and on a good day not even Armstrong can beat me," the 24-year old said.
Whether Armstrong will be able to beat the questions raised by his Ferrari connection is an issue which may take longer to resolve.