After years of whispers, suspicion and accusatory French media reports, superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong is in for the second toughest fight of his life.
Mr. Armstrong, a hero to millions for beating cancer and going on to win a record seven Tour de France titles, is reportedly being investigated by federal authorities in his native United States on allegations of fraud and doping. A New York Times report Wednesday said Mr. Armstrong and former team associates could be among witnesses issued grand jury subpoenas as part of a probe into allegations made by disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis.
Mr. Armstrong, a 38-year-old Texan, has long maintained his innocence, and has never failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs. On Wednesday, he said he would co-operate with a "fair investigation," but not a "witch hunt," and that information leaked to the media is part of an "agenda" to bring him down.
"As long as I live I will deny it," he said before the Tour's 10th stage. "There is absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated ... Absolutely not. One hundred per cent."
In 1996, testicular cancer spread to Mr. Armstrong's brain and lungs, yet after surgeries and chemotherapy, he recovered to win the most Tours in history. While professional cycling is more popular in Europe, Mr. Armstrong achieved crossover stardom in North America and has been richly compensated as a public speaker.
But his edgy personality and dominance of a grand national championship have not translated in France, where most of the damning reports of alleged failed doping tests have originated. His former team manager once said that the French "want Lance's head at any cost."
Now, with a government investigation on the home front, the game has changed - even if Mr. Armstrong's vehement denials remain.
Two months ago, Mr. Landis went public with allegations that Mr. Armstrong and members of the U.S. Postal Service team used banned substances earlier this decade. Mr. Landis, also an American, was stripped of his 2006 Tour championship for doping.
Mr. Armstrong countered Wednesday that the government would not "build a case" around Mr. Landis, who denied doping for years before admitting guilt, and questioned whether American taxpayers supported a federal probe. He said he has not been contacted by the government's lead investigator, nor subpoenaed, and that such investigations should be the purview of international cycling's governing body or the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The federal investigation centres on the finances of Mr. Armstrong's now-defunct team and whether or not it conspired to defraud the U.S. Postal Service, an independent government agency and its title sponsor for eight years, by using money for performance-enhancing drugs, or improving results through doping. It is being led by Jeff Novitzky, a Food and Drug Administration agent who headed the probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative , the firm at the centre of baseball's steroids scandal earlier this decade.
For the first time Wednesday, Mr. Armstrong denied that he held equity in the Postal Service team, which has been reported for years, saying he was simply a rider for Tailwind Sports, the company that owned the team. He also said that Capital Sports and Entertainment, an Austin-based company led by two of his associates, assumed operations of the team in 2004, and took an ownership position three years later.
"I never had any dealings, any dealings, with the Postal Service, zero and I never made any assertions either way," Mr. Armstrong said. "That's the truth, and that's what's in the contracts, and that's what will come out."
Mr. Armstrong, who came out of retirement to place third at last year's race, said in June this will be his final time riding the Tour de France. For the remainder of the race, which ends July 25 in Paris, he said he'll try and "appreciate the fact that I'm not coming back."
With reports from Associated Press and New York Times