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Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Lance in no mood to forgive Tour director Leblanc

Associated Press

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Lance Armstrong is in no mood to forgive Tour de France race director Jean-Marie Leblanc.

"The problems and the tension there are so deep," Armstrong said Tuesday. "I'm just not very optimistic."

After the seven-time Tour winner retired from cycling last summer, Leblanc heralded a fresh start for cycling, predicting an exciting time for Armstrong's longtime rival Jan Ullrich of Germany and the promising Ivan Basso of Italy.

But Basso, the 2005 Tour runner-up and 1997 Tour winner Ullrich were kicked out on the eve of this year's Tour, implicated in a Spanish doping investigation.

Although Armstrong "cares for them as friends," he used the scandal to hit back at Leblanc.

"I called Jean-Marie Leblanc the day all this news hit," Armstrong told a small group of reporters at a hotel in this Alpine mountain resort. "I said: 'Hey, I just wanted to wish you luck, sorry this happened. I know you were happy to see us move on ... but this would never have happened on our watch ever.' "

Armstrong is not unfamiliar with doping allegations.

Last August, the French sports daily L'Equipe alleged Armstrong tested positive for the banned performance enhancer EPO during the 1999 Tour -- the year of his first win. Leblanc reacted strongly, saying Armstrong had "fooled" the cycling world.

The relationship worsened in October when Leblanc announced the 2006 Tour route in Paris.

"I'll never forget as long as I live, Jean-Marie Leblanc's address," Armstrong said.

Mimicking, even mocking Leblanc, he continued in a soft, throaty voice.

"'It's time for the regime to end, the oppression of the Armstrong [era],"' said Armstrong.

Any reconciliation seems impossible.

Armstrong has shunned L'Equipe -- owned by the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), which also owns the Tour -- and says Leblanc's comments have caused irreparable damage.

"I think that's so complicated because of the relationship with ASO, L'Equipe. I don't think that's possible," Armstrong said. "The only question I have to answer is: 'Did you take EPO in 1999?' The answer is no."

Armstrong denies ever using performance-enhancing drugs and never has tested positive. Tuesday, he said he supports the fight against doping, hopes for better methods to detect cheaters and considers out-of-competition testing most effective.

"That's the one thing I got hit with the hardest," he recalled. "365 days a year, there's no gray area there."

Armstrong added all methods of spotting doping are useful -- if accurate.

"If something is scientifically 100 percent, if it's hair, if it's urine, if it's DNA, if it's blood ... great, test it all," he said. "Athletes shouldn't be opposed to that."

Monday, sporting a slightly fuller figure than in his racing years, Armstrong relaxed in his own unique way -- a couple of punishing bike rides up L'Alpe d'Huez, one of the most famed ascents in the Tour.

Cycling fans, many of whom already had started to seek out the best spot on the mountain, at first failed to spot Armstrong riding with friends.

"There was a little delay," joked Armstrong. "I had a white jersey on."

Overall, he says he feels welcome in France.

"I haven't felt any hostility," he said. "I rode [L']Alpe D'Huez yesterday [Monday] and I didn't hear one single negative remark. I like French people and the country of France."