After seven straight victories in the Tour de France, it seemed he had won over the world--and maybe even the French. But after an explosive story last week in a French newspaper, Lance Armstrong, who famously beat cancer, is in for another tough ride. L'Equipe, a French sports daily with a long history of questioning his accomplishments, ran a four-page feature, "The Armstrong Lie," claiming "indisputable" evidence that in 1999, the year of his first Tour victory, he used the banned performance-enhancing substance erythropoietin (EPO). Armstrong called the charge a witch hunt. "When I peed in that bottle [in 1999], there wasn't EPO in it," Armstrong said during a prime-time offensive on Larry King Live. "No way." But the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) suggested the story might be credible. "I don't think, with the greatest respect, you can just say it's the French media again," WADA head Richard Pound said in an interview with TIME.
Or can you? First, labeling the evidence as "indisputable" is a stretch. When taking drug tests, athletes submit two urine samples. To confirm a positive result, both tests must detect banned substances. France's National Laboratory for Drug Detection could test only the remaining, frozen B samples from six years ago. "For EPO, it has happened frequently that the A sample is not confirmed in the B sample," says Christiane Ayotte, a doping expert at the National Institute of Scientific Research in Montreal. Armstrong's 1999 and 2000 victories still stand, as do his five other wins, scored after testing for EPO at the Tour began in 2001.
But the allegations taint his legacy, burnished by his commitment to his cancer foundation. (Armstrong says he lobbied President Bush for $1 billion in cancer research during a recent bike ride in Crawford, Texas.) Lab tests have proved that Armstrong is a physically superior athlete. His heart, for instance, is larger than average, so when times are tough he has more resilience than his adversaries. He may need it once again. --By Sean Gregory. With reporting by James Graff