« Leipheimer takes Tour of Germany lead | Main | Armstrong to appear on Larry King Live to discuss L'Equipe allegations »

August 23, 2005

L'Equipe story accuses Armstrong of 1999 EPO use

Sun-Sentinel.com | Lance denies 'credible' report he used steroids

lequipe.fr | Armstrong dans la tourmente (in French)

So the story linked above is getting a lot of play this morning, and a lot of the headlines I'm seeing totally miss the point. "Armstrong tested positive in 1999," screams one.

Well, no. There was no test for EPO until 2001, and Tour riders weren't specifically screened for it until 2004. What L'Equipe has done is built what they claim is a paper trail, linking Armstrong's "B" samples, collected in 1999, with samples that were provided to the World Anti-Doping Agency for use in developing the EPO test.

The blood urine samples in question were allegedly anonymous, with only a numerical identifier, but L'Equipe claims to have copies of Armstrong's medical certificates, signed by both race doctors and the rider after doping tests, that show the same numerical identifier as the WADA samples.

Armstrong is unlikely to be sanctioned, since there's no corroborating sample available, and since the French national lab provided them to WADA “on condition that they could not be used in any disciplinary proceeding.”

Armstrong responded as expected:

"Yet again, a European newspaper has reported that I have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Tomorrow’s L’Equipe, a French sports daily, is reporting that my 1999 samples were positive. Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow’s article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.

The paper even admits in its own article that the science in question here is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself. They state: “There will therefore be no counter-exam nor regulatory prosecutions, in a strict sense, since defendant’s rights cannot be respected.”

I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs."

Best quote of the controversy (so far, at least) is Laurent Fignon, who Eurosport quotes alongside Jean-Marie Leblanc, Hein Verbruggen, and Jacky Durand. Said Fignon:

"I don't give a sh**. 1999? This is ancient history. What does this prove and what does this solve?"

"What interests me now is keeping the next generation of cyclists clean and drug-free."


VeloNews.com | L'Equipe alleges Armstrong samples show EPO use in 99 Tour

BBC Sport | Armstrong denies drug allegations

Posted by Frank Steele on August 23, 2005 in Doping, Lance Armstrong, Top Stories | Permalink


It has been well known for some time that Armstrong's blood and urine samples would be stored "for eternity" and be subjected to any new test available in the future to test for substances banned prior to, during and after the period in which the sample was taken, until there was no sample left to test. With that as a given, if Armstrong used EPO in 1999 (was EPO illegal in 1999? Is that relevant??), and had samples taken 6 times during that year's Tour de France, would he just wait around until he was "caught"? He is a calculating and intellegent man. I can hardly believe he would allow, without some sort of premptive strike, this kind of surprise. And, with his litigation against his insurance company pending, there seems a real possibility of significant ($5 million) monetary damages which is the stuff slander suits are made. So it will interesting to see whether he sues the newspaper and whether he will seek access to the samples for independant testing, both of which a rich and intellegent innocent man probably would do.

Posted by: Bill Hue at Aug 23, 2005 12:02:47 PM

Just a nit, but the samples in question seem to have been urine rather than blood. I am also puzzled as to why some reports suggest there is enough remaining of the B sample to allow further testing, whereas Armstrong's statement ("I have no way to defend myself") and other articles suggest that there is nothing left of the B sample. I hope Armstrong continues to press the British libel prosecution and the lawsuit against the insurance company denying the $5MM Tour victory bonus, since this will clearly become an issue in those cases. If Armstrong is clean, the lawsuits will provide a forum for him to prove it (either by retesting the sample or by refuting the science).

Posted by: Tom Koegel at Aug 23, 2005 3:38:39 PM


Sorry -- the blood/urine was me typing faster than I was thinking; I corrected that.

As for there being urine left that could be tested: That defeats the point of a 'B' sample: You need two separate samples, ideally independently maintained, so that there's less chance of manipulation or contamination.

The sample L'Equipe is relying on is unreliable in about a jillion ways: It's been passed around between multiple labs; there's no corroborating 'B' (C?) sample; and the most recent lab was working on developing a test to detect EPO, so it may have used different standards for handling and contamination than a lab testing active riders.

Posted by: Frank at Aug 23, 2005 4:06:14 PM

Maybe the Lance Executioners in France should re-check their science, as well as considering what happens to a cancer patient POST-CHEMO. If they are to survive at all, they are given drugs to build their hemoglobin back up to normal levels. Otherwise, infections by any common bacteria would kill them. Another suggestion is to reconsider how EPO is found in a person -- it's BLOOD testing, not urine!

Posted by: Sara Collison at Aug 23, 2005 4:35:39 PM

Urine tests can only detect EPO use two to four days after injection. Thus, they are considered unreliable by themselves even three to six weeks later, when most competitions take place. It's scientific lunacy to think that these urine samples are still valid for EPO testing six years after they were taken.

Posted by: Walt Thiessen at Aug 23, 2005 7:06:14 PM

Sorry, but you are wrong about the urine test.
EPO can be detect 2-4 days after injection, and therefore, if the samples were taken during this time interval and freezed for long term storage (-80C), these samples would be just as good as the day they were taken.

I am a biochemist by training, and for people to argue that these samples are "too old" is ridiculous.

Posted by: Gregory Timbledon at Aug 23, 2005 9:09:21 PM

Well, like the president of the doping lab says; the EPO is either broken down...or it isn't. If it is, it will not be detected. If synthetic EPO is discovered, there is no other way to explain than that the rider must have doped.

On the comment by Sara Collison on cancer patients receiving EPO; Armstrong himself has said in his book "It's not about the bike" (that title has a different ring to it now doesn't it? Hehehe) that he received EPO when his hematocrit level was very low. But this was in 1996 of 1997. Although that might have been in his hairs later on, it will definitely not have been in his urine during the prologue, stage 1, 9, 10, 12 and 14 of the Tour, lol!

Which brings me to another good point; Renno Roelandt of WADA has said Armstrong probably received three seperate treatments; one before the prologue, one before the Alps and one before the Pyrenees. Although this can be seen in the test results, I'd have to wonder why Armstrong was not found positive in stage 8, the time-trial which he won, and why he was positive on the precise days of the Alps yet days befóre the Pyrenees (the Pyrenees were stages 15 and 16, while he was found positive stages 12 and 14).

Ironically, he lost some time in the Pyrenees. Anyways there was a rest day between stage 14 and 15; why the hell would the guy dope himself in stage 12 and 14 if there was a rest day before the Pyrenees? We know EPO works a few days, but it sure can't be detected in urine that long after, PLUS, he seemed to have doped right ON the day of the Alpe stages, why do it ON the Alpe stages and then days BEFORE the Pyrenees? Also why would he need the stuff in the prologue and not in both the time trials?

Anyways, the EPO-test is still pretty shitty so he might have been "quite" positive on other days as well, just not positive "enough" or maybe the test results came back inconclusive.

As it sounds, it's pretty strong evidence. If it's true, I just wonder what he used after 2000, because he just seemed to get better when EPO couldn't be used anymore. Relatively better? No truly a lot better. Also remember that in 2000 he said he might not be coming back to the Tour in 2001 because of those strong doping allegations? HMM!

I've been hearing a lot about CERA, some kind of undetectable super-epo, also oxyhemoglobin - that's that horseshit right? (and I truly mean shit for HORSES) which carries oxygen but doesn't bring up hematocrit - and actovegin, cowblood? You wonder how these guys can be still alive when they're pomping around blood as thick as soy custard with a heart rate of 32 beats per minute.

Posted by: Jonathan Oudendijk at Aug 24, 2005 5:21:36 AM

What is curious is how the Tour de France director, LeBlanc, stated that he believes that Armstrong cheated in '99. Where has his professional sense gone? Why is that man already forming a conclusion and making accusatory statements like that??

Has LeBlanc always been anti-Armstrong?

Posted by: Thomas Galvin at Aug 24, 2005 11:23:55 AM

LeBlanc has always been kind of pro-Armstrong...just before this years Tour LeBlanc stated that Armstrong had done a lot for cycling and for the Tour in particular.

But LeBlanc doesn't really have to asumme any "official" position on things like this. He has more often refused certain people access to the Tour, whose guilt had not been proven.

Richard Virenque was denied to make the start of the Tour of 99 although he had denied the allegations against him. Virenque then found some EU-law stating he had the right to work, and was thus allowed to make the start that year.

Btw, I believe LeBlanc has said that he would wait for confirmation of the story, but that he did feel "let down" by Armstrong, who he believed had been a great ambassador for the sport.

Posted by: Jonathan Oudendijk at Aug 24, 2005 12:05:58 PM

This is real simple. There is no way to guarantee that the samples that were in storage for seven years were not tampered with. There is no way to guarantee that the documents linking the samples were not tampered with in seven years. The same people who run the Tour de France also run the newspaper as well as happened to be the party that were in custody of the evidence. That party has indicated multiple instance of hard feelings toward Armstrong.

You could fly a Spruce Goose through the holes in the chain of evidence here.

Posted by: afs at Aug 24, 2005 12:25:24 PM

Leblanc said yesterday he would wait before making up his mind. Today he is "convinced" by "proven" "scientific" evidence in which there is no anti-tampering control, no chain of custody, apparantly no "scientific" reliability and in which retesting or confirmation is impossible. He throws all due process and fundamental fairness out the window. This morning he is a lot less "confused and shocked" than he was yesterday. He must have slept on it and had an epiphany.
The whole organization, the Tour and the Newspaper, jointly owned, must really hate Armstrong and may always have.

Posted by: Bill Hue at Aug 24, 2005 12:39:09 PM

While I think that Armstrong has (or should have) some serious problems to explain here, the whole of this story is just bizarre.

Let's start with the French national lab deciding to run tests on samples from the 1999 Tour. The reason, according to L'Equipe, is to defend themselves from recent allegations of false positives in testing for EP0. But how, exactly, does testing blind samples from 1999 tell you anything regarding false positives?

Another part of the story is that the French lab is sharing the results with WADA. But again, to what purpose? What do you learn by discovering that a bunch of 1999 samples test positive?

So let's be clear--the most likely development of this story is that someone at L'Equipe or the lab considered that there were test samples left over from 1999 and thought "aha, we've got a shot to get that Armstrong guy now." And they ran the samples and, sure enough, they find 12 positive samples, and then L'Equipe does the leg work to cross-reference them with Armstrong's control numbers.

You have to like the Captain Renault-like reaction from the French testing lab director to the effect that he is "Shocked, shocked to discover that these samples can be linked to a particular rider." C'mon, how do you explain how L'Equipe got the results in the first place?

Now, none of this helps Armstrong in the least--except on the "I'm being persecuted" front. Positive results are positive results, and the only derogatory things I have heard about the tests (from the German and Canadian testing lab directors) are that they are surprised that one could have ANY positive test after so long, even if the samples are properly frozen. Unless one wants to lapse into real conspiracy theories, EPO got into these samples. How?

I'd love to see Armstrong disprove this. But I suspect--regardless of whether he did or didn't use EPO--that his legal team will advise him to stonewall the accusations because they are so hard to disprove at this point. This will be a hard strategy for him to employ and yet maintain his British libel suit and the suit against the insurance company that is denying him the $5MM bonus.

Posted by: Tom Koegel at Aug 24, 2005 2:14:04 PM

Jean Marie? What are you doing? Just last month you couldn't get enough of the guy, praising him for what he has done for your tour. Now? Now, you shooting yourself in the foot (is that French?). Get a hold of yourself. Let it go. There was no test for it in 99 and like Afs said, tampering is a serious possiblity.

If I were Lance, I'd start THE GREAT AMERICAN TOUR right here the the US of A, put up $1 million of my own money and raise a ridiculous amount of more prize money from sponsors, giving half to the winner. (Didn't he just win $500k or something petty like that? That's weak!) Oh yeah, and do it July!

Can I call you Marie?

Posted by: Robert Platts at Aug 24, 2005 7:16:01 PM

The whole story is fishy from the start due to the fact that the so-called "anonymous" ID numbers were exactly the same as the medical ID numbers assigned to the riders originally. If an ID number stays the same for seven years, it means the medical control people involved surely knew the identity of the person whose samples they were testing. Medical records are also quite easy to get, despite privacy laws (any temp secretary can look in the files).

The reason samples are supposed to be anonymous is to prevent human tampering, as we KNOW that sometimes the testers cheat as well.

The science involved here is also shoddy for a couple of reasons. First, there is a lack of information about what happens to samples after several years in the freezer. It is not true that the sample is in exactly the same state; and it is not clear that the samples were kept at the proper temperature for the entire time, without any errors or tampering.

Secondly, it is sheer lunacy for any scientist to proclaim that any of these tests are 100% accurate and that there is "no doubt". It is known that the EPO test DOES have false positives, and that's without even considering the BIG unknown due to the duration of storage, not to mention the many people who might want to tamper with the samples.

Scientists are supposed to bend over backwards showing the various possible sources of experimental error and acknowledge the limitations of their procedures. This is how it works in scientific journals.

If the head of the lab is proclaiming 100% certainty on a doping test in which he KNOWS the identity of the sample's provider, that is a clear indication of a political gesture overtaking his scientific integrity. Above all, labs should be neutral, and when they loudly join in the witchhunt, it is time to disregard any of their findings and find a new lab.

Posted by: freznetic at Aug 24, 2005 11:00:08 PM

Ask Bo Hamburger about false positive EPO urine tests. The test must be 100% accurate minus 1.

Posted by: Bill Hue at Aug 25, 2005 9:27:21 AM

LeTour and L'Equipe are in bed together. Do they have a vested interest in the $5 million payout, too? As in, does it come out of their pocket?

Jean Marie is an idiot, or on the verge of losing it. (Aren't they replacing the guy anyways?) I liked what another blogger said about him shooting himself in the foot. Typical French.

Posted by: Slow Freddie at Aug 25, 2005 12:40:15 PM

Yeah, these damn frenchies are jealous liers as usual. And they stink!
Whereas the proud americans just don't do that.
Except maybe Rafael Palmeiro when he testified in front of congress not too long he'd be busted.
Or except also Bill Clinton, swearing to his lovely fellow citizens that he had not relationship with Monica.
Or except Donald Rumsfeld (and the rest of the crew) for example when he was asked about WMDs right after US troops entred Irak: "We know where they are. They are around Bagdad and Tikrit"

No for real, silly frenchies...you can't trust these people...

Before you freak out, let's see if more news come out. If not, there will always be a doubt and everyone can believe whatever he wants.
Just relax!

Posted by: Jim at Aug 25, 2005 3:27:28 PM

I find it strange that the other riders are not outed by the paper-only lance-in a race where not a single stage was won by a frenchman. How is it that year after year, even when they now can test for EPO and a multitude of others he continued to win and the french didn't? The paper pretty much admits that the science was bad and that it can't be reproduced so how can it be believed. Maybe I'm a sap and want to think that he could do it just like the other greats have done it.

Posted by: matt at Aug 25, 2005 11:17:40 PM

Typical French. Can't win a fair fight, so they skulk around to try and diminish those who can.

Posted by: Blue at Aug 26, 2005 9:42:06 AM

I have rooted hard for Lance since before most people knew who he was. And having ridden the Pyrenees climbs and the Giant of Provence before Lance saw them, I chuckle to myself when I hear newbie American fans talk knowingly about Lance this and Ventoux that and L’Alpe du Huez etc. I really want to believe Lance for my kid‘s sake and for the sake of American cycling, but the evidence...
Scientifically: I've just spent several hours with the Physicians Desk Reference - the Doctor's Bible for all pharmaceuticals legally available in the United States. Fascinated to learn that Epogen dosing increases the hematocrit level over a period of time. At the highest recommended clinical levels Epogen will increase the hematocrit level only by a few points over a period of 2 weeks or so. Studies have shown that a dose of up to 10 times the recommended heavy dose might be done without ill side effects, but it is unlikely that a person could boost their hematocrit level from 41 (Armstrong’s pre-race number cited in the Walsh book) to near 50 over night. So to boost the hematocrit level up to near 50 at the beginning of the Tour and maintain it for three weeks, a rider would have to begin a program of Epogen treatment weeks before the Tour in order to be maxing during the Prologue and the ensuing important stages. Once the desired hematocrit level has been achieved it would become a matter of monitoring that level, and "topping off" to maintain it. It would seem that a rider cannot simply decide, "Well, I'm racing on the Ventoux tomorrow, so dose me tonight." There must be a systematic approach of doping over weeks.
The half life of Epogen in the system of renal patients is between 4 and 13 hours. In a healthy person that half-life can drop by as much as 20%. Now I understand why the French and Italian police would break into team rooms in the wee small hours of the morning. It is likely that if an otherwise healthy pro-rider dosed at 6 a.m., that the drug could well be out of the system halfway through the day's race, while it would be still stimulating the production of red blood cells. Thus, Armstrong was disingenuous at best when he rhetorically asked Larry King to explain why 11 samples from the ‘99 batch were negative. We are told that Armstrong is meticulous and intelligent about every detail of his training. Surely Armstrong would know that Epogen is out of the system quickly while the user still benefits from it. He knew the answer to his question, and he showed that both King and Costas were dreadfully under prepared for the interview. (And they didn’t ask him a single question about actovegan!)
Epogen is a dream drug for bike racers. To quote the PDR ""Patients ... showed a statistically significant increase in exercise capacity (VO2 max), energy, and strength with a significant reduction in aching, dizziness, anxiety, shortness of breath, muscle weakness and leg cramps." This could explain why Armstrong climbed those brutal mountains with nary a grimace, while Ullrich’s face was a contorted scowl.
Studies have shown that with higher hematocrit levels comes a higher risk of fatal thrombotic events, so using this drug to boost hematocrit levels to near 50% is highly risky and it is not something a person would do on a regular basis. This would explain why a racer would choose to focus on , say, one three week period per year to boost the hematocrit level. It would also explain why testing that racer in February or September would be a waste of time. The medical literature suggests that a safe target hematocrit level is in the 30-36% range. To test the effects of a higher level scientists would boost the level to 42%. Inducing higher levels in test subjects would not be morally or ethically feasible giving the known risks associated with artificially induced higher hematocrit levels.
Armstrong’s best defense with respect to using Epogen is that Epogen is known to make tumors grow faster. Why would a post-cancer patient use a drug that could make tumors grow faster? Unless he knows there are no tumors growing. I can’t figure out why Armstrong and his handlers wouldn’t mention this.
Legally: The recent exposé by L’Equipe has problems because of issues relating to the chain of custody of the samples and the failure to follow the protocols. But to believe that the L’Equipe report is without merit, one has to believe in a conspiracy for which there is little or no evidence, and no real motivation. (Alleging Franco-American hostility and blaming the messenger do not rise to the level of conspiracy.) Certainly no European tribunal could convict him of sports fraud, but we are in the court of public opinion and we are asked to be stupid to believe that everything is on the up and up.
My personal observation of Armstrong during the King interview is that he did lie when he denied use of Epogen. His answer was accompanied by an eye-twitch and a swallow. That may mean nothing to some people, but I have made quite a good living professionally ferreting out truth by questioning and cross-examining witnesses, and the swallow and eye-twitch have long been telltale signs that a person is uncomfortable with what they’ve just said. When a witness looks me in the eye and swallows I go right for that jugular so close to the mouth and throat that uttered. (In fact it was Armstrong’s body English that sent me scrambling for the PDR in my office.)
As a rider: I first saw Armstrong in ‘94. I was sitting atop the Tourmalet, snapping pictures. Armstrong came by about 20 minutes after the Indurain group. There were no other American spectators atop the Tourmalet that day. When my kids (who root for Lance just like me) see the picture I took of Lance in the rainbow jersey, they say, “He was fat then.” Indeed he was, but having myself ridden the Tourmalet at different weights in different years, I know that weight loss helps, but weight loss alone is insufficient to close that gigantic gap I saw between the champion and the pretender. There is something else, and it’s not just training, coaching, equipment, wind tunnels and support staff.
Sadly, I now believe that not only Lance, but his whole team was on the power juice. The sprinter George Hincapie winning at St. Lary Soulon? Please. You’re asking me to be ignore everything I’ve learned and earned.

Posted by: miguel c at Aug 26, 2005 2:03:37 PM