Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Media hounds Armstrong

AP , FIGEAC, FRANCE

Brioches la Boulangere rider Thomas Voeckler of France wears the leader's yellow jersey on the podium after the 164km 11th stage of the Tour de France, Thursday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Lance Armstrong confronted off-bike worries Thursday at the Tour de France, claiming that a reporter seeking "dirt" sought to rummage through his hotel room.

The five-time champion said he was scared that banned substances could be planted to frame him. Within his team, there are fears that some in France do not want an American to win a record six Tours.

Armstrong said a French television crew sought to access his room after he left to race in Thursday's 11th stage through central France, which was won by Frenchman David Moncoutie.

"After we left, a TV crew from France 3 was going to the hotel, the reception, to the owner, asking for our room, trying to get in our room," said Armstrong.

"They show up and they ask sporting questions to our face, but as soon as they leave they're digging in the rooms and looking for dirt," he said. "If you left a B vitamin sitting there, that would get on TV and that would be a scandal. That's what we have to live with every day."

Thursday's race did not change the overall time gap between Armstrong and his main rival, German Jan Ullrich, still 55 seconds behind. Saving themselves for the arduous and likely decisive climbs in the Pyrenees, which start Friday, and the Alps, they did not react when Moncoutie and two other riders surged ahead.

The stage win was Moncoutie's first in five Tours and the third by a French rider at this edition.

"To win a Tour stage is fabulous," said Moncoutie, who comes from the rural region crossed Thursday. "It was one of my dreams."

A herd of six cows trotting along the 164km trek from Saint-Flour to Figeac momentarily held up the pack. After a first week of cold and rain, blazing sun baked riders.

"We're tired and really cooked," Armstrong said afterward.

He finished ninth in a group which included Ullrich, rivals Iban Mayo, Tyler Hamilton and Ivan Basso, 5 minutes and 58 seconds behind Moncoutie's mark of 3 hours, 54 minutes and 58 seconds.

French champion Thomas Voeckler, also in that group, retained the overall lead, still 9 minutes and 35 seconds ahead of sixth-placed Armstrong. But the 25-year-old French rider is expected to lose the lead to top riders in the mountains.

Armstrong has been cheered by French fans waving the Stars and Stripes. But others bristle at the prospect of a Texan overtaking the four other five-time champions, who include Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.

One roadside cardboard sign Thursday read, "Lance Go Home."

Within his team, aides are concerned that fans or reporters might spike his Tour. Armstrong travels with bodyguards during the three-week race.

"Nothing against the French, but in France they're after us and they're after the sport of cycling," Armstrong said. "It's not just the Ministry of Sport, it's the media."

He claimed that the France 3 reporter who visited his hotel "has been following us for months and it's scandalous."

"The scary thing is, if they don't find anything and get frustrated after a couple of months ... well, who's to say they won't put something there and say `look what we've found,'" he added. "They see the sport as a target -- an easy target."

The France 3 reporter, Hugues Huet, said he went to the hotel to do interviews about Armstrong's teammates and that he chatted to the hotel manager for a few minutes. But he denied that he sought access to the champion's room.

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