SAINT-QUENTIN, France – The Tour de France is shadowed again by Lance Armstrong and doping.
The subject returned with a vengeance to cycling’s greatest race Thursday, and caught in the turmoil were four riders and a team manager who years ago helped Armstrong on the way to his seven Tour titles.
All this on a day when Germany’s Andre Greipel won the fifth stage – his second in a row – in a sprint after the 122-mile trek from Rouen to Saint-Quentin, north of Paris. Fabian Cancellara kept the race lead for a sixth straight day.
The ride got off to a bumpy start after a Dutch newspaper reported the former Armstrong teammates cut a deal with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for their testimony in a doping case against him.
Daily De Telegraaf, citing “well-informed sources,” said USADA had given six-month bans to Jonathan Vaughters, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde.
Later Thursday, The New York Times reported online that four of those riders – all but Vaughters – would testify in the agency’s case. The paper cited two unidentified people with knowledge of the case who requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Vaughters, now a team director at the Garmin-Sharp team, called the Dutch report “completely untrue.” The others declined to comment, though Hincapie said his thoughts were with Armstrong.
“I’m sad he is going through this,” said Hincapie, the only rider to have been on all of Armstrong’s Tour-winning teams. “He’s done so many things for the sport. His accomplishments are incredible.”
The revelations amount to a new twist in a swirling drama over the legacy of cycling’s greatest global superstar – this time putting some of his former friends and teammates on the spot.
From afar, Armstrong – who has unfailingly denied doping during his career – reiterated his charge that USADA was looking for a “vendetta” against him.
The top standings didn’t change: Bradley Wiggins, the leader of Team Sky, was second overall, 7 seconds behind Cancellara. Cadel Evans of Australia, the defending champion, was 17 seconds back, in seventh.
Cancellara earned the right to wear the coveted yellow jersey for the 27th time in his career, a record for a rider who has never won the Tour.
“When you make history in this kind of way at the Tour, it’s more special,” said Cancellara, a time-trial specialist and the only man to don the yellow this year after winning Saturday’s prologue.