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Tour champion under the microscope again

Did Armstrong and six others use EPO in 1999?

By Hedwig Kröner

Although he has now retired from cycling, accusations of doping continue to pursue seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. According to French newspaper L'Equipe, proof was produced today that Armstrong used the banned substance EPO to achieve his first victory in the race in 1999. Armstrong has already denied the claims, saying, "I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs."

The allegations came about when L'Equipe journalists compared the urinary sample numbers of the 1999 anti-doping controls with the - unnamed - results of extensive retrospective testing by French Laboratoire national de dépistage du dopage de Châtenay-Malabry (LNDD), which were communicated to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) today. The journalists identified Lance Armstrong's samples by finding the sample numbers on the 1999 doping control reports, which are available at various institutions at the French cycling federation as well as the International Cycling Union (UCI).

The collaboration between the French Ministry of Sports and WADA was aimed at validating the EPO testing method, which has recently come under fire for false positives. One part of the research involved proofing the EPO test against a sample group which had possibly used EPO without needing to 'hide' it, bearing in mind that the test was first used at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000, and validated by the UCI in spring 2001. The retrospective testing was carried out since December 2004 on the entirety of the Tour de France 1999 B samples, and determined twelve positive samples - six of which belonged to Lance Armstrong.

Those six were taken from the rider after the 1999 Tour prologue, which he won, as well as after stages 1 (Montaigu - Challans), 9 (Le Grand Bornand - Sestrières, where he beat Alex Zülle by 31 seconds), 10 (Sestrières-L'Alpe d'Huez), 12 (Saint-Galmier - Saint Flour) and 14 (Casters - Saint Gaudens).

The testing of the LNDD involved three parameters: (A) visual interpretation, (B) percentage of isoforms (indicating EPO use when present in values greater than 80 percent, with a margin of 5 percent) and (C) mathematical modelling. Only the samples positive in each of the three parameters were interpreted as positive, with a number of other samples found inconclusive. The urine samples had been frozen at -20° Celsius, making them resistant to molecular transformations which could lead to false positive testing, according to Prof. Michel Audran, member of Science and Industry Against Blood Doping (SIAB), quoted in the paper.

WADA is now evaluating the possible consequences for the American Tour de France champion. But because of the investigative nature of the testing, UCI sanctioning is not expected. "The investigations had an experimental character," LNDD scientific Jacques De Ceaurriz told ANP. "Since there is no possibility of a counter-evaluation, a rider can not be sanctioned on the basis of our findings."

The entirety of the A samples had been used in 1999, and the latest LNDD examinations involved using the B samples. Nevertheless, according to L'Equipe, the leftover quantities of the B samples would still be sufficient to realize another test, if this is deemed necessary by WADA.

The identity of the six other positive samples has not yet been revealed.