Two former Tour de France winners have hit back at criticism of their links with Italian doctor LuigBjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich have both leapt to the defence of controversial Italian sports doctor Luigi Cecchini in interviews published in France in the past 48 hours. Cecchini's name once figured alongside Francesco Conconi and Michele Ferrari in the investigation being led by judge Pierluigi Soprani into doping in sport and cycling in particular. The case against Cecchini was dropped, while Soprani's final verdict on Ferrari is due this autumn. "There's been a lot of talk [of my collaboration with Cecchini], but my relationship with him is simple," Ullrich told L'Equipe. "I was introduced to him by my friend Tobias Steinhauser and I discovered a new way of training. He taught me how to stay calm and patient. We speak on the telephone or by e-mail; he's a very interesting and competent person. I had the option of not staying with him at the end of last season, but I didn't hesitate to renew my faith in him. I'm not frightened of saying it: there's something fascinating about him." Ullrich's alliance with Cecchini has been widely acknowledged - but less well documented - for some time. Starved of information about the nature of their collaboration, journalists merely note the regularity of the German's training camps in Tuscany, where Cecchini is based. Riis and Cecchini are near neighbours in Lucca and long-term professional associates. The pair first linked up when Riis was riding for the Ariostea team in 1993. Since retiring as a rider in 1999, Riis has called upon Cecchini's expertise as a performance consultant for his CSC team. Tyler Hamilton left Riis and CSC at the end of 2003, but continued to work with Cecchini at Phonak. Alessandro Petacchi is another illustrious client and staunch defender of Cecchini's reputation. In an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe on Wednesday, Riis, too, reaffirmed his support for Cecchini: "It's always the same when a team goes well," said Riis. "Of course doping exists but the reaction should be to look at how people work before doubting them. Cecchini is the best coach in the world. I wish people would inform their opinions first, that they would come to see how hard we work." Cecchini, incidentally, has observed a strict media silence since being named in Soprani's enquiries in the late-1990s.