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Tour de France boss Jean-Marie Leblanc has offered few words of consolation to Lance Armstrong, the winner of his race for the past seven seasons, following yesterday's allegations that the American took the blood-booster EPO before and during the 1999 race. Having described the story in L'Equipe - which of course is part of the same ASO organisation as the Tour itself - as "extremely complete, objective and convincing", Leblanc said the revelations were "a heavy blow for the Tour, for cycling and for sport in general".
Leblanc's response chimed with a prevailing attitude in France towards Armstrong since the American retired from the sport at the end of this year's Tour on July 24. Within days, newspapers that had stood squarely behind Armstrong while he was still competing, suddenly changed tack and began to attack him. Chief among them was L'Equipe, whose allegations this week have brought into question Armstrong's incredible achievements over the past few years.
Leblanc seems to have undergone a similar transformation, confirming to L'Equipe that he had consistently viewed Armstrong as the embodiment of the Tour's renaissance after the nadir of the Festina scandal in 1998. But now, he has told L'Equipe, he is not so convinced of Armstrong's qualities.
"This is the first time that we have more than just rumours and insinuations, these are confirmed scientific facts," he said, adding that the onus is now on Armstrong to respond. "What L'Equipe has revealed tells me that I have been abused. We have all been abused," Leblanc added.
Leblanc agreed that the allegations against Armstrong, if proved, would create a similar furore to the Festina affair, and could also mark a new stage in the battle against doping - "retroactive detection". "It would be a useful tool" Leblanc explained. "We are all so fed up with doping that any means [of detecting it] are good as long as they are morally acceptable, so that nobody can cheat and think that they can get away with it."
Leblanc urged the authorities in all sports to consider possible changes in anti-doping legislation to take retroactive testing into account. He also felt that the allegations against Armstrong would not have a long-term effect on the Tour. "We are all impatient for the next Tour, because we want to see the new generation, new figures. Disappointment is counter-balanced by hope."
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