YESTERDAY MAY have been a rest day on the Tour de France, but there was plenty happening. While race leader Lance Armstrong was fighting back over insinuations that his charge up the overall standings is drug- fuelled, one of last week's stage victors was being ejected from the Tour by his team after admitting using a banned drug.
After his breakaway victory at St Etienne five days ago, Belgian champion Ludo Dierckxsens had to attend a doping control, where he was unwise enough to tell the officials that he had had a medical prescription for Synacthen to cure tendinitis in his knee.
The medication is a corticoid - a derivative of cortisone - on the banned list of the sport's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale. Although his urine test after the race was negative, the 34-year-old Dierckxsens was considered "positive" because he had taken a forbidden drug. Pietro Algeri, team manager of the Belgian's team, Lampre, withdrew Dierckxsens from the Tour, and he is suspended until further notice. However, he could well avoid UCI sanctions since corticoids are not forbidden in cases where they are being used as a medical treatment
"He took the drug without our advice," Lampre's team doctor, Fabio Zaretti, said. "I probably would not have given it to him. He is still an honest guy but a little silly."
Dierckxsens, who turned professional only four years ago - he was a painter in the workshop of the DAF car factory in Antwerp - is the first Tour doping case since the Festina affair last year.
As the Belgian headed home, Tour leader Lance Armstrong refused to speculate on the case. "It is bad for cycling, and for him," the American told a packed press conference.
His remarkable return from testicular cancer brought out doubts about how he had achieved such success, and the maillot jaune admitted that the innuendos that have appeared in some French newspapers have taken away from what he has achieved so far.
"What can I do?" he said. "I can only assert my innocence. I have lived a different life from most people. I have been on a death bed. I am not stupid. I have never tested positive or been caught with anything."
In France the cycling authorities and the police are strict in their anti-doping war, he said. "I live in France, I race in France, I have training camps here, and I am always in France. If I had something to hide I would stay away from France. I have nothing to hide."
He agreed, though, that his recovery is something of a miracle. "Fifteen or 20 years ago I would not have lived, let alone raced in the Tour. I am very surprised at my showing in the Tour from day one. I never felt that I was at complete crisis in the mountains."
He gave credit to his US Postal team-mates for helping him through. "They are special, and they have surprised some people in that they have been able to ride strongly at the front of the race every day," he said. "That makes it difficult for my danger men to get away."
Among his rivals is Alex Zulle, and Armstrong said that given that the Swiss rider had confessed to doping and served his suspension, he rated him "as a clean rider."
He was also glad, he said, that Richard Virenque, like Zulle a member of last year's disgraced Festina squad, had been allowed to compete. "He is the symbol of French cycling, and it would have been hard on the public if he had been left out."
Armstrong denied that he was "the boss of the Tour field," and refused to be compared to five-times Tour winner Miguel Indurain: "He is a legend, and my hero, and I cannot see myself in the same light."
Zulle, lying third 7min 47sec behind the Texan, is a perennial second best. This year, though, he is aiming for that spot.
"I am in the same situation as 1995 when I finished close to Miguel Indurain," he said. "I don't want to be second best but a place on the podium in Paris would be very satisfying."
Zulle's Tour history is streaked with misery, crashes and agony. Last year there was ignominy as well, Zulle and his team being sent packing because of the doping scandal.
Jose Miguel Echevarri, one-time bartender and guru to the mighty Indurain and now Zulle's directeur sportif at Banesto, knows how to fire up the Swiss rider.
"You have to scream at him like you would a servant, and be brusque," Echevarri said. "He is such a nice guy, but sometimes a team leader must knock on the table. At the Banesto dinner table you would not know who was the leader. Socially it is great to be like Alex, but it is no good for racing. His record is not the one he deserves."
Zulle aside, Abraham Olano of Spain is the closest threat to Armstrong as the Tour enters the Pyrenees. He is three seconds ahead of Zulle, and all the Texan's closest rivals know that the next two stages represent their last chance to overhaul the man in yellow.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies