Armstrong dodges doping bullets in LiŠge

Lance Armstrong faces the press two days before he starts his attempt to make Tour de France history

Lance Armstrong faces the press two days before he starts his attempt to make Tour de France history
Five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong looked intense and hot under the collar at a pre-Tour press conference in Lige on Thursday as he fended off questions about controversial doping allegations two days ahead of the race's opening time trial prologue, writes Justin Davis. US Postal's 32-year-old champion did not, as some expected, launch a charm offensive ahead of what will prove a tough three weeks of racing during which he is likely to come under further questioning from an ever-inquisitive press corps. Instead he said he had little comment to make about a book, 'LA Confidential - the Secrets of Lance Armstrong', which cites former colleagues who allege he has taken performance-enhanching products. One of the book's co-authors, David Walsh, was present at the press conference and a defiant Armstrong reiterated his threat to fight the award-winning Sunday Times journalist and his French co-writer, Pierre Ballester, in the courts. "No," an intense-looking Armstrong replied when asked if the controversial allegations had upset his race preparations. He added: "But I'll say one thing, since the esteemed author is here. In my view, extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof. "Walsh and Ballester have had four or five years working on the book, and they've still no proof. But I will spend however long it takes and whatever it takes to show the allegations are unfounded. I have already engaged lawyers in England and France." Armstrong at one point appeared to be trying to drive a wedge between the journalists who doubt him and those who have "sent me messages of support". He also responded to questions about the Tour's recent hard line with riders who have been or are implicated in doping cases. The Tour organisers have recently excluded David Millar, the Cofidis team leader who is alleged to have admitted taking EPO, while his team-mate Cedric Vasseur - who was implicated but never found guilty in a recent drugs affair - was excluded from racing. "It's a different predicament," said Armstrong. "But I can't judge. All I know is that race organisers have taken a very aggressive approach against doping ... to make the race better for everyone involved. I can't really comment." The American, however, said he was glad he had some friends in the room. "I have received a lot of positive messages from people around the world these last few weeks, and messages of support from some of the people in this room - you know who you are - and I can appreciate that." Jan Ullrich is, Armstrong confirmed, his main rival for the yellow jersey, although the Texan admitted he would be keeping his eye on a handful of other possible contenders. "Jan seems to be better prepared than other years, so he's the biggest rival. But there are between six and 10 others who are very close, guys like Tyler (Hamilton), (Iban) Mayo, (Ivan) Basso and (Haimar) Zubeldia. They're all pretty close. "Unfortunately we lost Vino," he added referring to Alexandre Vinokourov, last year's third place finisher who won't be racing following an injury in the Tour of Switzerland. "But the race will be very tight." The Alpe d'Huez time trial is expected to be the deciding factor in what many expect to be an Armstrong v Ullrich showdown. However, the American attempted to deflect the spotlight from the duel, saying Mayo - who beat him by almost two minutes in the Mont Ventoux time trial at the Dauphin Libr - would be the favourite. "As we saw on the Dauphin, I'm perhaps not the best in those kind of time trials," he said. "I suspect Mayo will win the stage." In three weeks time, the world will know whether there's a new Tour de France record of six victories, or a brand new winner. But for now, Armstrong doesn't want to hear the word 'legend'. "For me the word legend is more than six letters. I'm not sure I'm ready to talk about that right now. The Tour's not a one-day race and we just have to take it day by day." He added: "I still believe that it's the best man who wins in Paris. Even if I'm second, it's the best man who wins the race."
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