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UPDATE: Armstrong responds to the controversy. See end of post.
George Vecsey has an interesting column today about something that apparently has the French press in a tizzy: when Lance Armstrong was surprised last month by a French cycling official who showed up and asked for samples for a drug test, including some cuttings of his hair, the cyclist put him off for a half hour until he was able to take a shower.
Vecsey is probably right, that this is much ado about nothing. Armstrong’s camp says that the official was unknown to them, so the delay was about making sure this wasn’t some crazed fan trying to get some of Lance’s vital fluids and strands of hair. It isn’t surprising that the French press would blow something like this out of proportion. And Armstrong, as anyone who follows his Twitter feed knows, is constantly being required to submit to random drug tests, which he tolerates without complaints.
But Vecsey tries too hard to make it look as though Lance is above any question about drugs. As we’ve noted before, there are legitimate questions to ask about the winningest Tour de France champion in history.
Twice in a short column, Vecsey portrays Armstrong as dogged by jealous competitors, who, Vecsey seems to suggest, are turning to dope because they keep getting whipped by Armstrong.
Here’s the first one: “[Armstrong] was a marked man ever since daring to win seven consecutive Tours, beating out assorted Europeans and Americans, some of whom would be tossed out for doping while Armstrong never quite tested positive for anything.”
And here’s the second, near the end of the column: “When cycling finally faced its immense doping problem, it eventually caught dozens of competitors Armstrong had left far behind.”
Vecsey doesn’t name any of those dopers, but I’ll mention just four big ones:
Tyler Hamilton (2004, blood doping), Roberto Heras (2005, EPO), Floyd Landis (2006, testosterone), and Manuel Beltran (2008, EPO).
Vecsey’s correct — all four were “left behind” when Armstrong won his tours from 1999 to 2005. But what Vecsey doesn’t mention is that all four were also at one time Tour de France teammates of Lance Armstrong.
That doesn’t cast any specific doubt on Lance’s record for the years those riders joined his Tour teams. But it should give Vecsey pause before arguing for some kind of exceptionalism for Armstrong, who couldn’t have won even one of his seven Tours without teammates.
UPDATE: The Daily News notes that French officials are threatening to discipline Armstrong over the delayed-haircut matter. On his Twitter, Armstrong appears to respond to the brouhaha:
“Was winning the Tour seven times that offensive?!?”
Careful, Lance. Wouldn’t pay to lose your composure.