Tour de France: Armstrong's mission under a cloud

It should be a ride into history for a great champion - but the sport's doping problems loom over all
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The Independent Online

The Tour de France may be the biggest and arguably the most spectacular annual sporting event to be held on the planet, and Lance Armstrong may be limbering up for the greatest challenge in its history - to take a record-breaking six Tours - but at the same time doping is casting a long and seemingly perpetual shadow over the race.

For the race to begin on Saturday with its semi-official newspaper, L'Equipe, publishing a front-page editorial telling its readers never to forget the death of a former winner, Marco Pantani, last February from an overdose at 34 is just one more sign of how deeply it has been affected by the series of scandals.

Ironically, the 6.5km prologue event which kicked off the 2004 race in the centre of Liege last night ought to have been the one day when a British cyclist was guaranteed to be the centre of attention. A winner of the opening stage in 2000, David Millar came within hundredths of seconds of taking the prologue last year in Paris, but a faulty chain in the final kilometre ruined his chances.

But now the former favourite Millar could hardly be further away from the glamour of cycling's blue riband event, having recently confessed to taking the banned drug EPO in 2001 and 2003. Suspended from racing on Thursday, his career could be curtailed by a ban of up to two years, and it is more than likely that the Scot will be sacked from his Cofidis team next week. Team officials were blunt about the consequences: "It is a catastrophe," one said on Friday.

If that were not enough to make the 2004 Tour start a strangely mournful affair, other doping scandals - or suspicions of them - have piled on the pressure: from Italian rider Danilo Di Luca, whose phone conversations with his doctor, tapped by police, were unsavoury enough for Tour organisers to ask his team Saeco, to leave him out of the race, to a Basque, Gorka Gonzalez, who was dropped from the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad on Thursday because of anomalies detected in his blood samples.

The Gonzalez question itself is linked to Millar, who allegedly accused the Euskaltel-Euskadi team doctor, Jesus Losa, of providing him with illegal drugs. Losa, who refused for unspecified reasons to come to France but which could well be to do with the Millar case, has now been suspended by his squad.

Nor has Armstrong himself been able to avoid coming under the spotlight for reasons he would not like: on Friday he lost an appeal in a Paris court over the recently published book L.A. Confidential, which accused him of doping.

Armstrong is as belligerent over this as he is over any other challenge, on or off the bike. "I just want to say one thing about this book, I think that accusations as serious as that should be substantiated with equally irrefutable proof. Despite working for four or five years, the authors have not come up with that proof," he said. "Such things motivate me more, not less."

Strong words, and the accusations do not appear to have dented his conviction that a sixth Tour is well within his potential, despite being at an age, 32, where other five-time winners like Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain both decided to retire.

But the alarm bells are ringing in his US Postal team: Armstrong himself rode a poor Dauphiné Libéré, his favoured dress-rehearsal race, losing more than two minutes to one of his leading rivals, Iban Mayo on the decisive Mont Ventoux time trial.

Given that 2003 was his toughest win - his lead of over six minutes shrank to a sparse 61 seconds in Paris - the sense that his reign could be coming to an end has begun to pervade the peloton.

But Armstrong himself is having none of it, repeating whenever asked that he is "stronger than in previous years at the start of the Tour." Furthermore, since 1999, he has become a master tactician in terms of putting psychological pressure on his rivals, with last year's Alpe D'Huez stage winner Mayo the latest to come into his sights.

"After the Dauphiné [which he lost to Mayo] I've shown now that I'm perhaps not the strongest climber out there." he said during his pre-Tour press conference. "I think he can win the [decisive] Alpe D'Huez time trial, not me."

It was a remark guaranteed to have dozens of Spanish journalists keeping the heat on the Basque, well-known not to welcome questions at any time and visibly nervous as the clock ticks down to the start.

The prologue was an early opportunity for Armstrong to score psychological points over his rivals, particularly given the exceptionally long phony war period of 10 days which follows it, before the first real encounter with the mountains of the Massif Central a week on Wednesday.

"I think Armstrong will want to be ahead of his rivals," former French cycling star Laurent Jalabert commented. "It will be a great way of silencing those who say he's not as strong as he used to be."

Yet the race itself has almost as many question marks surrounding its state of health as its star rider, with organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc announcing: "Nobody is going to play around with the Tour any more. We are at war against doping."

Sadly for his race, things have got to the point where winning or losing that battle will be of as much interest as Lance Armstrong's fight for his sixth Tour.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'