The dirty past of the Tour de France came back on Friday to haunt the 100th edition of cycling's showcase race, with Lance Armstrong telling a newspaper he couldn't have won without doping.
Armstrong's comments to Le Monde were surprising on many levels, not least because of his long-antagonistic relationship with the respected French daily that first reported in 1999 that corticosteroids were found in the American's urine as he was riding to the first of his seven Tour wins. In response, Armstrong complained he was being persecuted by "vulture journalism, desperate journalism."
Now seemingly prepared to let bygones be bygones, Armstrong told Le Monde he still considers himself the record-holder for Tour victories, even though all seven of his titles were stripped from him last year for doping. He also said his life has been ruined by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that exposed as lies his years of denials that he and his teammates doped. And Armstrong took another swipe at cycling's top administrators, darkly suggesting they could be brought down by other skeletons in the sport's closet.
The interview was the latest blast from cycling's doping-tainted recent history to rain on the 100th Tour.
Recently, Armstrong's former rival on French roads, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, confessed to blood-doping for the first time with a Spanish doctor. French media also reported that a Senate investigation into the effectiveness of anti-doping controls pieced together evidence of drug use at the 1998 Tour by Laurent Jalabert, a former star of the race now turned broadcaster.
Not surprising in Armstrong's interview was his claim that it was "impossible" to win the Tour without doping when he was racing. Armstrong already told U.S. television talk show host Oprah Winfrey when he finally confessed in January that doping was just "part of the job" of being a pro cyclist.
The banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, wasn't detectable by cycling's doping controls until 2001 and so was widely abused because it prompts the body to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, giving a big performance boost to endurance athletes.
Armstrong was clearly talking about his own era, rather than the Tour today. Le Monde reported that he was responding to the question: "When you raced, was it possible to perform without doping?"
"That depends on which races you wanted to win. The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping. Because the Tour is a test of endurance where oxygen is decisive," Le Monde quoted Armstrong as saying. It published the interview in French.
Some subsequent media reports about Le Monde's interview concluded that Armstrong was saying doping is still necessary now, rather than when he was winning the Tour from 1999-2005. That suggestion provoked dismay from current riders, race organizers and the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union or UCI. Five-time champion Bernard Hinault, who works for Tour organizer ASO, said: "We have to stop thinking that all riders are thugs and druggies and all that."
Asked later by The Associated Press to clarify his comments, Armstrong said on Twitter he was talking about the period from 1999-2005. He indicated that doping might not be necessary now.
"Today? I have no idea. I'm hopeful it's possible," Armstrong tweeted.
In a statement issued before that clarification, UCI President Pat McQuaid called the timing of Armstrong's comments "very sad."
"I can tell him categorically that he is wrong. His comments do absolutely nothing to help cycling," McQuaid said in a statement. "The culture within cycling has changed since the Armstrong era and it is now possible to race and win clean.
"Riders and teams owners have been forthright in saying that it is possible to win clean — and I agree with them."
After Armstrong retired for the first time in 2005, cycling pioneered a so-called "biological passport" program, introduced in 2008, that monitors riders' blood readings for tell-tale signs of doping. Riders in the top tier of teams were tested an average of nearly 12 times in 2012. Yet the pre-Tour drip-drip-drip of doping confessions and revelations about the Armstrong era have overshadowed cycling's work to break its culture of drug use.
That, in turn, has led to renewed appeals from some involved in the sport for cycling to have a "truth and reconciliation" process — where all those involved in doping past and present could air what they know and did once and for all, so cycling can then move forward.
"Having it come out in dribs and drabs: You know, Laurent Jalabert this week, this guy [another week] — is ridiculous and painful and unnecessary," Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate and manager of the Garmin-Sharp team, said this week before Le Monde's interview. "I really wish that we could get on with the truth and reconciliation committee. ... Let's just move the sport forward, let's get it out, let's deal with it, let's recognize it, let's own it, let's learn from it."
Armstrong told Le Monde he would be prepared to appear before such a committee.
"The whole story has still not been told," he was quoted as saying. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that unmasked him as a serial doper "did not paint a faithful picture of cycling from the end of the 1980s to today. It succeeded perfectly in destroying one man's life but did not benefit cycling at all."
He argued that doping would never be eradicated.
"I did not invent doping," Le Monde quoted Armstrong as saying. "And nor did it end with me."