Tour de France: Denials all round in Rouen as Lance Armstrong doping case engulfs Garmin team


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The Independent Online

A "no comment" or simply no words at all from a handful of g rim-faced riders and team management, with quote-hungry reporters and TV cameras massing round team buses and cars, and team staff staring blankly across a flimsily fenced-off area at the press pack beyond: this is usually the scene when a Tour de France drugs scandal breaks. And so it was again yesterday morning in Rouen, as the latest round of doping suspicions over the seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong surfaced.

The drama mounted when, faced by a sea of reporters at the stage start, the Garmin-Sharp director Jonathan Vaughters denied any of his team's riders would face six-month bans by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as part of its investigation into Armstrong.

Vaughters declared that his team's core values included racing 100 per cent clean, and answering any questions put by anti-doping authorities "openly and honestly".

When asked if he had testified against Armstrong, who never rode for the Garmin team, Vaughters refused to comment.

Vaughters was in the eye of the storm as he had figured in a report in the Dutch daily De Telegraaf, which claimed yesterday that USADA had handed out suspended bans to Vaughters and four other former Armstrong team-mates. The four are riding this year's Tour for the Garmin, BMC and Omega Pharma teams, while Vaughters is now Garmin director.

The four others named by the Dutch paper refused to comment on the case at all, with the two most communicative of the riders – the long-time Armstrong team-mate George Hincapie, and the 2007 Tour and 2008 Vuelta podium finisher Levi Leipheimer – stating the obvious, that they were simply here to race.

"I've always tried to do the right thing for my sport but I've got other things on my mind here," a Hincapie statement read.

"We've not received any information from any authority, we can't comment on newspaper reports," was the terse contribution of Hincapie's BMC team manager Jim Ochowicz – who directed Armstrong – before retiring swiftly back to the team bus.

Tour officials were equally tight-lipped, with the race's general director, Christian Prudhomme, asking a reporter from the French sports daily L'Equipe – presumably rhetorically – how they expected him to react "about nothing at all". Similarly, Pat McQuaid, president of the sport's governing body, the UCI, refused to comment, while USADA were unreachable.

Armstrong has always flatly denied doping and although a two-year federal investigation was dropped in February, charges have now been filed by USADA, accusing him and four members of his back-up staff, including his long-standing team manager Johan Bruyneel, of systematic drug use during his strongest years.

If found guilty by USADA, Armstrong could lose all seven of his Tour de France titles. Dogged by accusations since his first Tour victory in 1999, Armstrong has been testified against – according to a letter published by the Washington Post – by at least 10 riders or former riders. Two years ago, Floyd Landis, the 2006 winner later stripped of his title after testing positive, accused Armstrong of systematic drug use, claims later echoed by another former team-mate, Tyler Hamilton.

Even so, and just as in 1998 at the height of the Festina scandals, most of the spectators yesterday seemed utterly indifferent, packing the Rouen pavements to see the riders off and then jostling for position at the finish in rainsoaked Saint-Quentin. For all the scandals, then, it appears France still loves the Tour de France.