Cycling: Tour chief: 'We were all fooled by Armstrong'

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The Independent Online

Initially, when L'Equipe ran the story on Tuesday stating that six samples of urine given by the seven-times Tour winner had contained a banned drug, EPO, Leblanc had pleaded for "time for Armstrong and his management to defend themselves". But to judge from the verbal broadside yesterday Leblanc has made up his mind on the veracity of the report.

"For the first time somebody has shown me that Armstrong in 1999 had a banned substance called EPO in his body," Leblanc said. "I was fooled. We were all fooled." Leblanc's opinion is critical, not just because he has been directing the Tour for the last 20 years, but also because previously he has always backed Armstrong against such accusations.

"I thought that Armstrong's morphology post his battle against cancer, and his obsessive professionalism were the key factors in his 1999 Tour victory," Leblanc added.

Leblanc, however, continued to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt after 1999 because no scientific evidence along the lines of L'Equipe's report had been produced concerning the six other Tours he won.

"From 2000 to 2005 we can imagine that if tests were carried out on Armstrong's urine, nothing would be found," Leblanc said. Barring Leblanc, support and scepticism about L'Equipe's report has been mapped out along the usual lines of those who already felt Armstrong had no case to answer and those believing the accusations represent the most compelling evidence yet of his guilt.

While in France, polls among cycling fans and reports of reactions amongst local riders, the already unpopular American generally gets the thumbs down, outside the country, Armstrong's case is mostly upheld by bike riders.

That includes the Swiss rider Alex Zülle and the Spaniard Fernando Escartin, who were second and third in the 1999 Tour.

Further afield, though, a large percentage of the United States media believes that L'Equipe's investigation is fuelled by underlying nationalism. "They [the French] don't mind us when we're buying their wine or storming German pillboxes," wrote Mike Lopresti in USA Today on Wednesday.

"But... they have never been able to accept their sporting jewel being dominated by an American. Somebody's wrong and let's hope it's not Lance," Lopresti concludes.

However, for the French at least, and for the director of the event that hope is close to being extinguished.