If Armstrong's 'brother' has made these claims, take them seriously

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The Independent Online

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Somebody accuses Lance Armstrong of doping. He trots out the "most-tested athlete in history" response. Armstrong's detractors accuse him of being the cancer that afflicts cycling. His defenders say he has inspired the real cancer community everywhere. The rest of us yawn slightly, write up the umpteenth piece about cycling's and Armstrong's battered credibility and then get on with the rest of life again.

For most of the time in Armstrong's career it was not riders but investigative journalists who pointed the finger. Then a year ago it was Floyd Landis who kicked off a more intense circle of "I said/he said". On Friday, Tyler Hamilton, another key US Postal team-mate of Armstrong's, added his voice to that of Landis.

But now there's been a twist. CBS – whose 60 Minutes programme tonight is set to show Hamilton whistle-blowing on Armstrong – now claims that a third US Postal rider, George Hincapie, told federal investigators that he and the American doped.

Hincapie was the rider closest to the Tour de France legend in his career – they were team-mates as far back as 1994 – and the only one to complete all seven Tours as the Texan's team-mate. Armstrong even said Hincapie was "like a brother to me".

At the same time, Hincapie – unlike Hamilton or Landis – never tested positive, nor did he, like them, end his career in a poorly-paid team as a virtual pariah. Hincapie is still with one of the top WorldTour teams, BMC, and today he is set to finish racing the Tour of California. Hincapie has no axe to grind and his credibility certainly remains intact.

So if – and it is a big, big if – the claims from CBS about Hincapie turn out to be true, then the tide of accusations and counter-accusations will turn definitively against Armstrong. The echoes of Festina in 1998, when almost all the riders barring the leader Richard Virenque (who finally came clean) lined up to confess organised doping, or Team Telekom in 2006, when all bar the Tour winner Jan Ullrich put their hands in the air, would be too intense even for Armstrong to avoid.

However, there is no indication that this particular sporting Rubicon has been crossed, or need ever be crossed. As Armstrong's spokesman put it, "we have no way of knowing what happened in the grand jury and so can't comment on these anonymously sourced reports".

Hincapie himself is refusing to discuss the CBS story. Unless it is confirmed, for all that the fireworksare getting more spectacular, the entrenched positions over Armstrong's guilt or innocence remain exactly as they were: entrenched.