Sat, Jul 03, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Lance Armstrong: it is now or never

TOUR DE FORCE Texan Lance Armstrong, who returned to cycling after successful treatment for testical cancer, is poised to become the first man to win six Tours de France

REUTERS , LIEGE, BELGIUM

A sixth victory looks a clear possibility yet Armstrong's show could be stolen by an unpredictable Tour fixture -- doping.

Briton David Millar, one of the few riders who could have rivalled Armstrong and Ullrich in time trials, was forced out of the race after being charged in a doping investigation into his Cofidis team.

The scandal which rocked the French outfit, the death of 1998 champion Marco Pantani and police raids on the Giro have confirmed that cycling is far from having cleaned up its act.

Even before the start of the race, one rider, Spaniard Gorka Gonzalez, has been declared unfit to start. Tour direction sources said the decision was based on new blood tests introduced on the Tour this year and which could prove unusually effective.

dopers beware

Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc could hardly have been clearer in his warning to doping cheats after scandal again threatened to engulf this year's race.

"The police will visit the Tour in July," he said in May.

To those who might not have heard, Leblanc announced last week that any rider involved in a doping controversy would be barred from entering the race, which starts today.

He was true to his word when time-trial world champion David Millar and his Cofidis team mate Cedric Vasseur were banned from taking part in the Tour because they are under judicial investigation.

Spanish team Kelme, accused by former rider Jesus Manzano of organized doping, were also ruled out.

Leblanc has uttered similar threats in the past, notably after the Festina scandal of 1998 when the team were expelled from the race after performance-enhancing drugs were found.

He tried to stop Richard Virenque taking part in the Tour the following year but the International Cycling Union (UCI) rescued the Frenchman on legal grounds and he went on to win the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey.

This year, in a last ditch effort to tackle doping before the new Pro-Tour is launched next season, the UCI stood by Tour organizers.

"We will not accept at the start of the next Tour de France riders involved in a legal investigation or a police operation. We have received full support from the UCI," Leblanc said.

UCI chief Hein Verbruggen is expected to announce tough measures and tests to detect corticoids, human growth hormone and new forms of EPO at a press conference on Friday.

Recent doping allegations in a book about five-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong -- which he denies, the death of 1998 champion Marco Pantani from a cocaine overdose and police raids during this year's Giro d'Italia, have done little to restore the tarnished image of cycling.

Anti-doping experts have said that more efficient tests are ready and need only to be checked in practice.

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