Armstrong era remains albatross around UCI's neck

Story highlights

  • Chris Froome is current leader of Tour de France
  • First Tour since Lance Armstrong admitted doping last January
  • UCI President Pat McQuaid insists his organization not to blame
  • McQuaid reveals his interest in speaking to Armstrong in bid to improve drug testing

While the Tour de France ambles around the French countryside a dark shadow still lingers over the sport's blue ribbon event.

While the PR machine goes into overdrive and the wheels of change are supposedly set in motion, cycling's attempt to lift the specter of Lance Armstrong still remains.

A man who 'won' the Tour de France on seven occasions brought the sport to its knees last January after finally admitting he doped following years of denying the allegations.

Earlier this year, Armstrong revealed he used testosterone and human growth hormone, as well as EPO -- a hormone which is naturally produced by human kidneys to stimulate red blood cell production.

His seven consecutive victories between 1999-2005 came amidst rumor and speculation that he was doping -- while the U.S. Anti-Doping agency (USADA) accused Armstrong of running "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."

Now, the Union Cycliste International (UCI), the sport's governing body and its president Pat McQuaid are under pressure to revamp cycling's entire image.

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But its failure to catch Armstrong remains an albatross around its neck -- despite McQuaid vehemently insisting his organization is not to blame.

"I'll look back on a rider who was as well as many others at that period, cheating and getting away with it because the system wasn't strong enough to beat him," McQuaid told CNN ahead of the start of the Tour.

"It wasn't a question of authorities, because many authorities tried to catch him and weren't able to, so I don't blame the UCI. I don't blame the AFLD (French anti-doping agency) or USADA or anyone else.

"The system wasn't strong enough and they were using products that couldn't be caught with the system.

"The system is a lot stronger now and so I look back on an athlete and it's not just Lance Armstrong, many of his counterparts were doing the same thing because they could get away with it."

Disillusioned

However McQuaid's position as president of the UCI is under huge strain with opponents desperate to displace him.

Cycling Ireland refused to back its home candidate for September's UCI elections, while a recent management committee meeting in Bergen, Norway, was a fiery affair.

A dossier compiled by private investigators on McQuaid was reportedly put forward to the committee with the Irishman blocking any attempts to discuss it on the opening day of the meeting.

The document was eventually discussed and although its contents have not been made public, it represented another blow to McQuaid's re-election hopes.

While McQuaid has denied all knowledge of Armstrong's activities, both he and the UCI have come in for criticism following the publication of a hugely detrimental report from the USADA last October.

The report raised question marks over whether the UCI had a role in covering up positive tests -- an allegation which McQuaid strenuously denies.

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When pushed by CNN on whether the UCI covered up suspicious samples from Armstrong, McQuaid replied: "No. Absolutely not."

After being quizzed on how he could be sure, McQuaid added: "Because we know, we've studied, we know what we've done and we know, we have looked into all of this even since.

"We have prepared, we have prepared a big number of files for the independent commission that we were going to present to the independent commission and all those questions that you've asked there are all answered in those files.

"I think he (Armstrong) was tested 10-15 times during the Tour de France. So we did all we could do. Those samples were sent away and they came back negative.

"The UCI wasn't the only anti-doping agency, so to speak, who was testing Armstrong.

"I mean everybody was testing him and they were coming back negative and in that situation one has to say that the situation isn't strong enough and it wasn't at that time but today the system is much stronger and much better."

But McQuaid is facing a challenge for the leadership from British cycling chief Brian Cookson, who has grown disillusioned with the Irishman's tenure.

It follows a catalog of perceived errors by the UCI, including the acceptance of a $100,000 donation from Armstrong in 2002 -- four years before McQuaid took up his role.

The money was used by the UCI to buy a Sysmex machine, a contraption which is used to analyze blood samples.

It is a decision which McQuaid concedes should not have been made.

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"I would say and we have said, we have admitted that in hindsight -- and of course hindsight is an exact science -- that it would have been better had we not accepted those," he said.

"But we took them at that time in good faith and we used them for the uses that we said we had put them to."

Cookson has been heavily critical of the way McQuaid has led the UCI and has pledged to restore faith in the organization.

He has promised to create a completely new independent anti-doping unit, which would work alongside the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Cheats

McQuaid, who is aiming to secure a third term in office, remains philosophical about the future and the battle against doping.

"Nobody is silly enough to say that you're 100% confident that the peleton is 100% clean," added the UCI president.

"That's just not possible. It's not going to be possible in any sport or in any parts of society, but certainly I think the large majority of cyclists are now going into their careers, not wanting to get involved in doping.

"And there's evidence of many riders who come from strong teams, with strong anti-doping backgrounds all winning races and when they get across, you know, when they're doing their press conferences, they are saying I'm an example of how you can win a race clean

"I don't think it'll ever be beaten because in every part of society there are cheats.

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"There are people who look for a short-cut, who try to win by devious means or whatever.

"Whether it's cheating by taking drugs or cheating in any other fashion, there are always going to be people like that in society and in sport ."

There is one avenue which remains open to McQuaid though -- a route which involves Armstrong.

The opportunity to talk to the disgraced cyclist in a bid to improve doping control remains a possibility -- and McQuaid is refusing to rule out such a move.

"He certainly has more knowledge," he said of Armstrong.

"If he was prepared, in terms of coming to the UCI, not necessarily to me and explain in more detail or give us more assistance, give us more information and try to help us in planning the future on the fight against doping, we'd certainly be interested in speaking to him."

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