Lance's comeback makes it open season for his detractors

Relative quiet met the initial revelation of Lance Armstrong's comeback in Europe. Tour de France organizers issued cautious, neutral statements, and the negative rumbling among team officials and top riders seemed muted.

Perhaps it was shock. Perhaps it simply represented the time needed to re-gird.

It should surprise no one that the decibel level has risen precipitously in the past 24 hours with three reports datelined in metropolitan Paris. This was to be expected as Armstrong unloads a decade's worth of baggage, steamer trunk by steamer trunk, back in his old neighborhood.

Tuesday, the leonine former Tour director Jean Marie LeBlanc broke his silence with a good-cop lecture that warned of the "collateral effects" that would follow Armstrong's return, namely, a proliferation of doping-in-cycling stories -- not that they've exactly waned since Armstrong's departure.

LeBlanc, who had a largely amiable relationship with Armstrong, quoted Voltaire to make his point. "If you love cycling, which we don't doubt, do us the friendly gesture of remembering the old maxim that goes, 'Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good,'" LeBlanc wrote in an open letter published in the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe.

Wednesday, in what could be viewed as grandstanding or a cleverly crafted gotcha or both, Pierre Bordry, head of France's national anti-doping agency (the AFLD, in short form), made an unprecedented offer to Armstrong via a news release posted on the organization's Web site. Here's our translation/interpretation:

Let's clear up these doping rumors once and for all. By mutual agreement, let's test the urine samples we have left from the 1999 Tour. You don't have to have this done at our lab. We know you're not crazy about us. Pick any internationally accredited lab you want. And hey, even if the samples come up dirty, pas de probleme -- the eight-year statute of limitations for sanctioning has already passed.

"I'm not doing this to upset him, or cause trouble for him," Bordry told ESPN.com Wednesday. "I won't do it unless he's interested and willing. I regard him as a great champion, but there are doubts. I'm giving him a chance to prove he's clean."

Bordry added that the idea to extend the offer was his alone. "We are independent," he said of the agency he leads, which conducted all testing at this year's Tour because of the since-resolved rupture between Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the conglomerate that owns the race, and the UCI, cycling's international governing body.

Gallic tongue firmly planted in cheek, L'Equipe headlined the story on its Web site "The AFLD offers its help." Right. This was a lifeline coated with grease for the seven-time Tour champion, who had to weigh the possible injury to his image if he refused versus the potential devastation if he accepted and the samples were to show the presence of the blood-boosting medication erythropoietin (EPO), the performance-enhancing substance specifically mentioned in the AFLD's release.

Armstrong, who has consistently denied doping at any point in his career, issued a statement dismissing the offer. Neither Armstrong nor veteran anti-doping researcher Don Catlin, who is designing a personal testing program for the cyclist, responded to ESPN.com's requests for a reaction.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it is. Shortly following Armstrong's retirement in August 2005, a report leaked to L'Equipe that urine samples from several riders had been retroactively tested, ostensibly for research purposes, and turned up positive for EPO. A L'Equipe reporter claiming to be on a different kind of reporting mission duped Armstrong into giving him the information needed to match the results with his name.

The identities of most of the other riders were never revealed, although in what now has become a somewhat more significant footnote, Manuel Beltran of Spain was linked to a positive sample. Beltran rode for Banesto in 1999, but was later a support rider for Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams. He started this year's Tour for the Italian Liquigas team and became the first of several riders booted from the race for initial positive tests for EPO, a result later confirmed by his B sample.

Back in 2005, Armstrong launched a full-bore attack on both the science and ethics underpinning the research project, which was commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The report of an independent analyst hired by the UCI supported him and strongly criticized the French lab, but the episode, rightly or wrongly, put the most meaningful dent in Armstrong's armor to that point in time. It was followed by more allegations in an arbitration between the rider and an insurance company that tried to withhold a $5 million bonus from him based on doubts about his integrity. Armstrong won that fight, too, but at great cost.

WADA spokesman Frederic Donze said nothing in the dense thicket of the anti-doping code precluded the AFLD from extending its offer or prevented Armstrong from taking them up on it. But a myriad issues would be raised. Bordry said he did not know whether the six samples under the agency's control are the same samples that were the focus of the controversial 2005 research project. He added that he would need documents now held by the French Ministry of Sport in order to match any rider's samples with his name and number. If the samples have been previously opened, the chances of getting any legitimate results would be heavily disputed. The samples would have had to be stored continuously at minus-20 degrees Celsius, and the agency would have to prove they had been protected from tampering.

Paul Scott, the lawyer-chemist who has designed internal anti-doping programs for the former Slipstream team and now for Rock Racing and BMC, freely admits his bias against French anti-doping agencies developed while he was working on Floyd Landis' unsuccessful defense. He thinks the offer smacked of an inappropriate politicization of science. But Scott said he would challenge the validity of such retroactive testing no matter who was doing it. "There have been no real studies of the stability of EPO in samples frozen for this long," he said.

The last of three shoes fell about an hour after the AFLD's invitation hit the wires. L'Equipe published official word that ASO director Patrice Clerc had been fired. The sports conglomerate owns the Tour, numerous other cycling races and sporting events, and L'Equipe itself.

Clerc deeply mistrusted the UCI and was loath to make peace after the two bodies severed ties earlier this year following ASO's exclusion of the Astana team from the Tour. UCI chief Pat McQuaid subsequently went over Clerc's head to the widow of the ASO founder, with skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy acting as a go-between. An accord that will bring organizers of the Tours of France, Italy and Spain back into the UCI fold was signed two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Marie-Odile Amaury has installed her 32-year-old son in Clerc's place -- for the time being.

"It's something I shouldn't comment on," McQuaid told ESPN.com Wednesday. "It's an internal Amaury decision. All I would say [to Clerc] is 'goodbye,' and you can read between the lines if you like."

Conspiracy theorists will see Armstrong pulling strings in all this as revenge for the Tour's snub of his once and future director Johan Bruyneel and many other friends at Astana, the team he is joining. A couple of weeks ago, rumors circulated that Armstrong wanted to buy the Tour. Chances are that Clerc's beheading has more to do with the long-standing fight between ASO and the UCI, as well as some noncycling financial issues, like the recent foundering and forced relocation of the Paris-to-Dakar road rally. Tour director Christian Prudhomme, LeBlanc's successor, was just as strident about Astana, and he kept his job. But as if anyone needed a reminder, we are back to the days of Six Degrees of Lance, a churning cottage industry in which everything that happens in the industry can be traced back to him.

That theme and many of the questions about Armstrong's past would have continued to recede, the trail becoming ever colder, had he remained retired. But his comeback makes it open season again.

He said he missed competition. He has it on several fronts now.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.