PARIS — A French newspaper says Lance Armstrong used the performance-enhancing drug EPO to help win his first Tour de France in 1999, a report the seven-time Tour winner vehemently denied.
L'Equipe devoted four pages to its allegations, with a Tuesday front-page headline "The Armstrong Lie." The paper said that signs of EPO use showed up in Armstrong's urine six times during the '99 race.
"Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues, and tomorrow's article is nothing short of tabloid journalism," Armstrong wrote on his Web site. "I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs."
However, the Tour de France's director said Tuesday that L'Equipe's report seemed "very complete, very professional, very meticulous" and that it "appears credible."
Leblanc also said any disciplinary action appeared unlikely, based on the L'Equipe account. The paper's investigation was based solely on B samples — the second of two samples used in doping tests. The A samples were used up in 1999 for analysis at the time.
The governing body of world cycling did not begin using a urine test for EPO until 2001. For years, it had been impossible to detect the drug, called erythropoietin, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.
EPO tests on the 1999 B urine samples were not carried out until last year, when scientists performed research on them to fine-tune EPO testing methods, the paper said.
The national anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry, which developed the EPO test and analyzed the urine samples in question, said it could not confirm that the positive EPO results were Armstrong's.
It noted that the samples were anonymous, bearing only a six-digit number to identify the rider, and could not be matched with the name of any one cyclist.
However, L'Equipe said it was able to make the match. It printed photos of what it said were official doping documents. On one side of the page, it showed what it said were the results of EPO tests from anonymous riders used for lab research. On the other, it showed Armstrong's medical certificates, signed by doctors and riders after doping tests — and bearing the same identifying number printed on the results.
The lab statement said it had promised to turn over its results to the World Anti-Doping Agency "on condition that they could not be used in any disciplinary proceeding."
"It will be very interesting to see what UCI does and what the U.S. Cycling Federation does and what Lance Armstrong has to say," WADA chairman Dick Pound said. "If the evidence is seen as credible than yes, he has an obligation to come forward" and specifically give his comments, especially after his previous comments that he has never used drugs.
"If anything were found, we couldn't do anything because we didn't even exist in 1999. But it's important that the truth must always be made clear," Pound added.
L'Equipe, whose parent company is closely linked to the Tour, has frequently raised questions about how Armstrong could have made his spectacular comeback from testicular cancer without using performance enhancers. L'Equipe is owned by the Amaury Group whose subsidiary, Amaury Sport Organization, organizes the Tour de France and other sporting events.
A former L'Equipe journalist, Pierre Ballester, was co-author of a book published last year that contained doping allegations against Armstrong. He wrote the book with Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh.
In the book, "L.A. Confidential, the Secrets of Lance Armstrong," one of the cyclist's former assistants claimed that Armstrong once asked her to dispose of used syringes and give him makeup to conceal needle marks on his arms.
Armstrong has taken libel action against The Sunday Times after the British newspaper reprinted allegations in a review of the book in June 2004. The case will go to trial in London's High Court in November.
Armstrong retired from cycling after his record seventh straight Tour victory last month.
French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said he was deeply saddened by the allegations, though he noted that they were unconfirmed and never could be because of the lost A samples.
"It's a shock to learn this about a great champion," the former Olympic champion fencer said. "This is certainly an element that could tarnish his image."