Armstrong return puts science in the crosshairs

By Laura Weislo In an extraordinary coincidence of timing, a debate surrounding a scientific paper...

By Laura Weislo

In an extraordinary coincidence of timing, a debate surrounding a scientific paper on Lance Armstrong's transformation from one-day racer to Tour de France champion has erupted in the same week the seven-time Tour winner announced his return to the sport. The argument, which was played out in the pages of the Journal of Applied Physiology, re-ignites the debate over whether Armstrong made his leap to fame through post-cancer weight loss and more efficient pedaling, or if he made his gains through doping.

On one side is University of Texas researcher Edward F. Coyle, who authored the 2005 article, "Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures." On the other is physiologist Michael Ashenden. Together with Christopher Gore, Ken Sharpe and David Martin, the Australians have questioned the fundamental argument of Coyle's paper, that Armstrong made gains in efficiency from 1993, the year he became World Champion, to 1999, when he took his first Tour de France victory.

In between the two dates, Armstrong suffered from near-fatal testicular cancer, went through surgery and months of chemotherapy, and then made a come-back to the sport which inspired cancer victims worldwide. Throughout his seven Tour victories, Armstrong fought off allegations of doping. Coyle's research was widely cited by the press, television commentators and by fans as proof that Armstrong achieved his Tour victories clean.

The lines of scientific discourse have been blurred by the fact that both sides of the argument had crossed paths over Armstrong in a lawsuit by SCA promotions, the underwriter of a $5 million bonus for Armstrong's sixth Tour victory. SCA Promotions refused to pay the bonus after his 2004 victory until it could be proven that allegations in David Walsh and Pierre Ballaster's book L.A. Confidentiel of performance-enhancing drug use by Armstrong were false. When Armstrong sued the company for payment, Ed Coyle testified for Armstrong, while Ashenden appeared for SCA Promotions.

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