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Mountain of evidence becomes toughest climb of all

L ance Armstrong's then girlfriend, the American singer Sheryl Crow, was due to arrive at his apartment in Spain and he needed some items cleared away that might prove awkward.

It was 2004 and he'd split from his wife Kristin the previous year. So he instructed his bike mechanic and personal assistant, Mike Anderson, to rid the apartment of any traces of that previous relationship. In the bathroom cabinet Anderson says he spotted a small white cardboard box with the word ANDRO on the label.

In the spring of 2005, Anderson sued Armstrong over a failed business deal. Legal documents filed for the lawsuit carried Anderson's account of his discovery in the Spanish apartment.

This in turn piqued the interest of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is investigating doping allegations against Armstrong. The inquiry is being led by federal agent Jeff Novitzky whose investigation into the BALCO affair resulted in the prosecution and conviction of Marion Jones for lying about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. The retired baseball legend Barry Bonds is also facing a trial on perjury charges, arising out of the same investigation.

The FDA's inquiry into Armstrong is concentrating on the years between 1999 and 2004, during which the world's greatest cyclist won six of his seven Tour de France titles. Since August a federal grand jury has been gathering testimony from associates and former team-mates, among them the 2006 Tour champion Floyd Landis. Landis was subsequently stripped of the title. He has since confessed, and openly accused Armstrong of systematic doping.

Last November, the FDA requested Italian police and customs officials to search a house in Tuscany occupied by Yaroslav Popovych, a Ukrainian cyclist and team-mate of Armstrong.

According to a lengthy report in the current edition of Sports Illustrated, the officers found performance-enhancing drugs, medical supplies and drug-testing documents. They also found emails and texts which allegedly link Armstrong's Radioshack team with Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor convicted in 2004 of "sports fraud".

That verdict was overturned two years later on a technicality but Armstrong had by then publicly cut his ties with Ferrari after a long association.

Dr Ferrari, he said at the time, had never provided him with performance-enhancing drugs. But FDA agents, according to SI, have acquired cyclists' training logs and alleged doping programmes handwritten by Ferrari. The police raid in Italy produced evidence, according to SI, suggesting that Armstrong's team was in contact with Ferrari as recently as 2009.

When Armstrong returned to cycling after a three-year absence in September 2008, he announced that his Astana team had hired Donald Catlin to test his blood and urine samples. They would post the results online. Catlin is a world authority on blood doping. He had run the US Olympic anti-doping laboratory for 25 years. "This will be," promised Armstrong, "the most advanced anti-doping programme in the world."

A number of insiders, however, were sceptical. "When I saw them together," says Floyd Landis, "it didn't surprise me. Lance knows Catlin well."

Andreas Breidbach had been head of the laboratory's EPO testing group for three years. When he heard of the link-up, he told SI, his reaction was, "Oh, great. Lance is being tested by his greatest admirer. And to the outside world it looks convincing."

Five months after announcing the initiative, Catlin and Armstrong ended it. Catlin had collected only one urine sample from him during that time.

In 1999, USA Cycling formally requested Catlin to hand over past test results for a cyclist identifiable only by a code number. The cyclist is alleged to be Lance Armstrong. Catlin replied with a letter detailing the cyclist's testosterone-epitestosterone ratios in samples tested over the previous eight years. A 1993 sample showed a ratio of 9-to-1; a 1994 sample was 7.6-to-1; a 1996 sample was 6.5-to-1. Most people have a ratio of 1-to-1. A ratio of 6-to-1 was considered abnormally high and evidence of doping. In 2005, this was lowered to 4-to-1.

In his letter, Catlin explained that he had attempted at the time to confirm the 9-to-1 and 7.6-to-1 findings by testing the B samples. "In both cases the confirmation was unsuccessful and the samples were reported negative."

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Catlin was read his 1999 letter. He conceded that it looked disturbing. He said that even one failed confirmation was a "once-in-a-blue-moon" occurrence. Breidbach also recognised the rarity of two B samples failing to confirm original results. "That should not happen. If you find a nine and can't confirm, then something is very wrong with your screening test."

In any event the cyclist in question was one lucky man.

The latest revelations will now be added to the mountain of circumstantial evidence that has been amassed against Armstrong over the years. Currently competing in Australia, he blanked all media questions last week. His spokesman said the SI article was "old news from the same old discredited sources."

Armstrong is a modern-day master of the universe. No athlete has ever mobilised as much money and influence in the defence of his reputation. He has never tested positive and denies ever taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Six months ago, agent Novitzky interviewed Anderson and established that the label on the little white box was Androstenedione, a steroid.

Anderson remembers the day he opened the bathroom cabinet in Spain as "the day I found proof that there is no Santa Claus."


Sunday Indo Sport