Lance Armstrong won again.
This one wasn't as decisive as crossing the finish line first at the Tour de France, but it was a win nonetheless, if only because it kept suspicion squarely in his rearview mirror. And that's where it should stay, unless and until somebody produces more damning evidence than what L'Equipe splashed across its pages last fall under the banner, "The Armstrong Lie."
"It's definitely a relief to realize, to know," Armstrong said Thursday, "that what I've been saying all along is true."
That was the bottom line, anyway, after a report commissioned by international cycling's governing body was released a day earlier, clearing Armstrong of charges he used the blood-boosting drug EPO during his first tour win in 1999.
It also said the tests conducted on Armstrong's urine samples, frozen after that tour, were done improperly and employed dubious science, concluding it was "completely irresponsible" to suggest they "constitute evidence of anything." Almost as satisfying, the investigation also roughed up Armstrong's nemesis, World Anti-Doping Association czar Dick Pound, and a few other contributors to what Armstrong long ago labeled a "witch hunt."
Pound did not return phone calls to his Montreal office seeking comment, but L'Equipe said it was standing by the story.
"That's what a 130-page investigation will do for you," Armstrong snorted. "Because I think the investigators did a pretty good job of laying out the unethical behavior on all sides. ..."
Before we go any further, a disclaimer: I have no idea whether Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during his first tour win, despite being on hand for that one and several more of the six in a row that followed.
Common sense suggests anybody who dominates the dirtiest sport of all - sorry, baseball - must be dirty. And before severing ties ahead of the 2005 race, Armstrong worked extensively with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who's been in doping-related scrapes back home and was cleared by an appeals court only last week of charges related to the alleged juicing of another rider.
On the other hand, Armstrong was already a world-class triathlete at 15, then cancer and arguably the toughest training regimen ever undertaken transformed him practically into a cyborg, as close to a machine as humanly possible.
His body fat was 4 percent just prior to last summer's retirement - "You can put a '1' in front of that now," he joked - and his physique, metabolism and circulatory systems were likewise models of efficiency. He has a lower heart rate and a higher aerobic capacity than just about every world-class endurance athlete ever tested.
Armstrong also had the most money, best team, best support staff (including lawyers) and state-of-the-art equipment - and all of it available at a moment's notice.
In short, he availed himself of every advantage the rule book allowed, sometimes in triplicate.
But here's a few other things we know: Armstrong was the most frequently tested athlete on the planet and he's never come back with a positive, confirmed result even once, or trotted out the excuse he didn't know what he was putting into his body.
But Armstrong is realistic enough to know all those legal wins won't change opinions much at this late date, and especially on the other side of the Atlantic.
"My perception has always been that Americans supported me. And my perception, at the same time, is that most of the Europeans have absolutely not supported me. Having said that, and not to sound crass, I don't really care what happens in Europe," Armstrong said.
"My home is America. I live here full-time now, my kids live here, my work, my mission now is here.
"And so I have to be concerned with this army," he added, "not that one."
Reach Jim Litke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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