New Doping Allegations Dog Lance Armstrong The French newspaper l'Equipe has reported it has definitive evidence of illegal substance use by cyclist Lance Armstrong during the 1999 Tour de France. Talk of the Nation looks at the latest in a long line of drug allegations that Armstrong has steadfastly denied.
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New Doping Allegations Dog Lance Armstrong

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New Doping Allegations Dog Lance Armstrong

New Doping Allegations Dog Lance Armstrong

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About a month ago Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France and now the French newspaper L'Equipe reports that urine samples Armstrong provided in 1999, the year he won his first Tour, tested positive for a drug believed to help increase an athlete's stamina. In any case, a drug that was illegal for use at the time, and now. Back then, there was no means to test for that drug, known as E-P-O, or EPO. In a message on his Web site, Armstrong has again denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs, and described the story in the French newspaper as a witch-hunt.

If you have questions about Lance Armstrong's Tour de France record and these latest allegations, give us a call, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: Dan Coyle is the author of "Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour De France." He joins us now by phone from his office in Homer, Alaska.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION again.

Mr. DAN COYLE (Author, "Lance Armstrong's War"): Thanks; good to be here.

CONAN: So as--is this a smoking gun? Has Lance Armstrong been caught?

Mr. COYLE: Smoking cap gun, perhaps. It's in the eye of the beholder, really. If you are in Europe, if you're a European cycling fan, if you're certainly a member of the French press, it seems like people are seeing this as the long searched-after smoking gun. But here in America, it has not had that effect. Recent poll just said 72 percent of people still believe Lance is innocent. What this really is has been kind of a litmus test on the different views of Lance from each side of the fault line that apparently goes down the Atlantic Ocean.

CONAN: Well, get back to perception in just a moment. What about the evidence? What's the proof?

Mr. COYLE: Well, the proof is interesting. What this is--back in '99, they froze some of the urine of the riders in the Tour de France. Last December, what happened, the lab defrosted it to test it, to see if they could improve their--refine their test for EPO. That was in December. What happened on Monday is a French paper found a paper trail linking the anonymous identifying number of six vials of that urine to the identifying number that was used by Lance Armstrong in the Tour. This paper trail is what's being provided as evidence, and there--it leaves a lot of questions. It's far from bulletproof. The questions begin with `Does the urine degrade when it's frozen for six years at -20 degrees centigrade?' And of course the current cycling protocols by the governing body do not permit any sanctions when there aren't two tests, when there aren't two samples. In this case, there's only one sample of each of those since the first sample was destroyed in the--back in 1999. So it's far from being an ironclad case. It ends up being something that people who think Armstrong is doping are definitely going to put into their ever-extending file of smoke.

CONAN: Now again, this is not the lab saying, `Oh, we found that Lance Armstrong's urine samples from 1999 and now we've tested them and they're--there's this EPO in them.' This is the newspaper saying the lab found them.

Mr. COYLE: That's right. The lab said we cannot confirm because the lab is not given that number. The lab is just given the samples. They're anonymous. It was the newspaper's initiative that said, `Well, let's find out who those anonymous samples belong to,' and they printed facsimiles of the numbers, the tags, in the paper, and the numbers match when it comes to Armstrong, so whether that's legitimate or not is something that time will tell. One advantage I guess we have in this case is that Lance has proven himself to be extremely aggressive legally when it comes to pursuing these sorts of things. He may have eight teammates in the Tour de France, but he has 11 lawyers who work for him on eight different cases, and counting, in three different countries.

CONAN: I think there's a case under way currently in Britain.

Mr. COYLE: That's right. It's going to be at the high court this November, and it involves a 375-page book written by Irish journalist David Walsh called "LA Confidential," which purports to prove through quite extensive exhausting series of evidence that there is circumstantial evidence that Armstrong has doped.

CONAN: Now the director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, thinks--says he finds these new reports credible. He's saying, `Armstrong fooled us all. It's time now for him to explain what happened.'

Mr. COYLE: That's right. And I wonder if that will happen. Armstrong has a history with Leblanc. The two have feuded in the past. Armstrong's life gets defined by these fights, these sorts of battles, and with him they invariably get personal. So it'll be interesting to see what happens. Leblanc clearly feels strongly about this. He has maybe seen the evidence more closely than the rest of us have and we'll have to see what the next few days bring, but he said he believes it's proof.

CONAN: The fundamental question that a lot of people had, and not just in France, was that Lance Armstrong, a great story, a cancer recovery, but then how could he possibly have recovered from cancer and then gone on to win that first Tour de France without the help of performance-enhancing drugs?

Mr. COYLE: Then you add to that the fact that cycling has had long and dark history of doping. Lance gets that. And the interesting thing is he poses the question, as a very stark one, of belief, as he asked from the podium at this year's Tour: Do you believe in miracles? And he felt sorry for those of us who don't, those people out there who don't, which, again, seems to be most of Europe, while in the States people do believe in those miracles. It is a tough thing to swallow, and Planet Lance, as they call it, is, as I've found in reporting my book, a place of light and shadow. There are definitely some people he's associated with that are less than pure over the years. And, unfortunately, like with a lot of other athletes, it becomes up to the eye of the beholder, and each of us, as fans, to sort through this, to figure out what we believe.

CONAN: We're talking with Dan Coyle, author of "Lance Armstrong's War," about the new allegations swirling around the seven-time Tour de France champ.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Let's take a call from Jerry. Jerry calling from Mays Landing in New Jersey.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. Love Lance. I just read--I thought that Lance had used EPO as part of his cancer treatment prior to him coming back to the Tour.

CONAN: Is that a possibility, this EPO was left over as part of Lance Armstrong's cancer treatment?

Mr. COYLE: That's been raised. No. He did definitely use it. It's common with chemotherapy patients to use EPO because it boosts your red blood cell count and helps you recover from chemotherapy and he did use it as a patient but he's said, he's written in his book, said he stopped using it when his recovery was finished. When he returned as a professional cyclist in '98, he stopped using EPO therapeutically.

JERRY: Can I ask another quick question?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. COYLE: Sure.

JERRY: Is it--EPO can be used and then monitored so that it's not testable prior to the Tour? In other words, you could EPO, let's say, nine months, or six months before, and then it wouldn't show up in the test because, of course, Lance has got all the tremendous science behind him, and he's, you know, a great athlete, but...

CONAN: Would EPO be helpful in that far ahead of the race, Dan?

Mr. COYLE: It would be. It would allow you to train harder. It is not detectable after about 15 days, and certainly wasn't detectable back in '99, which is why they froze the sample to begin with. What they're alleging to find is a synthetic EPO. That's what they're saying they found in those vials. And it is a tough thing to test for because it does disappear so quickly out of the human body. And it's a naturally occurring substance. We all have it. It helps us maintain our red blood cell count.

JERRY: What about Greg LeMond's accusations?

Mr. COYLE: Again, there's another good fight between Armstrong and LeMond. LeMond has gone on record as saying he believes that perhaps Lance has indulged in using performance-enhancing drugs. The fight between the two of those goes on and it is troubling to hear two champions sort of squabbling like that and I think it's continuing.

CONAN: Oddly enough...

JERRY: Was Tyler Hamilton found using EPO or...

Mr. COYLE: That was a different thing. He was found with someone else's blood in his body, which has been attributed, according to Tyler, to a medical condition. According to his accusers, that he must have transfused blood from someone else. But the purpose was the same as EPO, to increase your octane, your oxygen-carrying capacity, makes you have better endurance.

CONAN: And while there is an ongoing fight with Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain, the great Tour de France rider, has come out and said he thought all this was very peculiar.

Mr. COYLE: That's right, that's right. To go back and look. As another cyclist said, `Why don't they go back to 1903 when the first Tour began and look at this?' It does smack a little bit of singling out, certainly among the paper, which is why I think in the end it's probably not going to have a huge impact, certainly not in this country.

CONAN: Let's go to another caller. Dan. Dan in Jackson, Wyoming.

DAN (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

DAN: I had the opportunity to race with Lance Armstrong about 10 years ago and I can tell you firsthand he's a phenomenal rider but I actually raced with him before he had cancer and he weighed about 20 pounds more than he did in 1999 when he won his first Tour de France and anybody that knows anything about the Tour de France, it has a lot to do with weight to strength, and that extra 20 pounds, I think, made a huge difference with Lance. But as far as the EPO goes, if he tested positive in 1999, he should have tested positive in the consecutive years following. EPO's not a one-time use drug. You have to continue to take it in order to receive the benefits. So I think...

CONAN: Well, wouldn't it--if he just used it in '99, 1999, wouldn't he have just gotten the benefits in 1999 and then felt better the next year?

DAN: Well, he would have gotten the...

Mr. COYLE: He would have had to keep using it to maintain that level of performance and so far as L'Equipe is reporting, they haven't found anything in 2000, 2001, 2002, so--of course, that was about when they started testing for EPO and the athletes knew that so they would have taken another tack. So, again, you've got some holes in this, some things to explore, some things that definitely would not hold up in a court of law. And ultimately your point is that he is an amazing athlete. One of the more interesting comments that I heard came from one of Armstrong's accusers, actually, a former teammate, who's spoke in detail about how Armstrong promoted the use of EPO on his team. Now these are the accusations. But that teammate also said, `You know what? If there was no doping, Armstrong would still win.' And in some ways I think that's where a lot of America goes. We don't know that much about the sport, but we feel like we know a lot about the guy, and all things being considered, wow. He'd probably win anyway and that's sort of a dark calculus to contemplate but I think that's where a lot of our brains are.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call.

DAN: Yeah, I had just one final...

CONAN: I'm afraid we don't have time for it, Dan. We're flat out against the break. Dan Coyle, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. COYLE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Dan Coyle, author of "Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France." He joined us from his home in Homer, Alaska.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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