PARIS – Lance Armstrong went on the offensive Wednesday, saying it was "preposterous" for the Tour de France director to suggest the legendary cyclist "fooled" race officials and the sporting world by doping.
Comments by Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc appeared in the French sports daily L'Equipe on Wednesday, a day after the newspaper reported that six urine samples provided by Armstrong during the first of his seven Tour championships in 1999 tested positive for the red blood cell-booster EPO.
"I actually spoke to him for about 30 minutes and he didn't say any of that stuff to me personally," Armstrong said, referring to Leblanc.
"But to say that I've fooled the fans is preposterous. I've been doing this a long time. We have not just one year of only 'B' samples; we have seven years of 'A' and 'B' samples. They've all been negative," he said during a conference call from Washington.
In his comments to L'Equipe, Leblanc sounded convinced that Armstrong was guilty of doping, saying the onus was on him to explain the newspaper's findings.
"For the first time — and these are no longer rumors, or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts — someone has shown me that in 1999, Armstrong had a banned substance called EPO in his body," Leblanc told the newspaper.
"The ball is now in his court. Why, how, by whom? He owes explanations to us and to everyone who follows the tour. Today, what L'Equipe revealed shows me that I was fooled. We were all fooled."
The Tour did not respond Wednesday to a request by The Associated Press to interview Leblanc.
The tour director was hardly the only target of Armstrong's ire Wednesday. He also questioned the validity of the science involved in testing samples that were frozen seven years ago and how those samples were handled since. He also charged officials at the suburban Paris laboratory that processed them with violating the World Anti-Doping Agency code by releasing the results to the newspaper.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that they have samples. Clearly they've tested all of my samples since then to the highest degree. But when I gave those samples," he said, referring to 1999, "there was not EPO in those samples. I guarantee that."
Fellow cyclists came to Armstrong's defense Wednesday.
"Armstrong always told me that he never used doping products," five-time winner Eddy Merckx told Le Monde newspaper. "Choosing between a journalist and Lance's word, I trust Armstrong."
L'Equipe is owned by the Amaury Group whose subsidiary, Amaury Sport Organization, organizes the Tour de France and other sporting events. The paper has often raised questions about whether Armstrong has ever used performance enhancing drugs. On Tuesday, the banner headline of its four-page report was "The Armstrong Lie."
EPO, formally known as erythropoietin, was on the list of banned substances at the time Armstrong won the first of his seven Tours, but there was no effective test then to detect it.
The allegations took six years to surface because EPO tests on the 1999 samples were carried out only last year — when scientists at the national doping test lab outside Paris opened them up again for research to perfect EPO screening, with the blessing of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Another five-time Tour champion, Miguel Indurain, said he couldn't understand why scientists would use samples from the '99 Tour for their tests.
"I feel the news is in bad taste and out of place, given that it happened six years ago after his first Tour victory, and after he won six more," Indurain wrote in the Spanish sports daily Marca. "With the little I have to go on, it is difficult to take a position, but I think at this stage there's no sense in stirring all this up."
Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, said he did not have all the details and did not want to be too quick to judge.
"But clearly I would be very disappointed if the story were true," he wrote on his Web site.
L'Equipe's investigation was based on the second set of two samples used in doping tests. The first set were used up in 1999 for analysis at the time. Without that first set of samples, any disciplinary action against Armstrong would be impossible, French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said.
Lamour said he had doubts about L'Equipe's report because he had not seen the originals of some of the documents that appeared in the paper.
"I do not confirm it," he told RTL radio. But he added: "If what L'Equipe says is true, I can tell you that it's a serious blow for cycling."
The International Cycling Union did not begin using a urine test for EPO until 2001. For years, it had been impossible to detect the drug, which builds endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.
Jacques de Ceaurriz, the head of France's anti-doping laboratory, which developed the EPO urine test, told Europe-1 radio that at least 15 urine samples from the 1999 Tour had tested positive for EPO. The year before, there were more than 40 positive samples, he said — reflecting how widespread the drug was when riders thought they could not be caught.
The lab said it could not confirm that the positive results cited in L'Equipe 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 any one cyclist.
However, L'Equipe said it was able to confirm the samples were Armstrong's by matching the cyclist's medical certificates with the results of positive doping tests bearing the same sample numbers.
Armstrong has insisted throughout his career that he has never taken drugs to enhance his performance. In his autobiography, "It's Not About the Bike," he said he was administered EPO during his chemotherapy treatment to battle cancer.
"It was the only thing that kept me alive," he wrote.