It's just like old times for Lance Armstrong.
|Can Armstrong ever get away from the doping rumours? [GALLO/GETTY]
The French anti-doping authority has challenged the seven-time Tour de France champion to agree to retest his 1999 urine samples, in order to see whether a French newspaper was right when it reported they contained the banned substance EPO.
Meanwhile, it also appears Armstrong may have to accept a supporting role to Astana teammate Alberto Contador in next year's Tour de France, the team cycling director has said.
Armstrong rejected the challenge from the French anti-doping agency, lashing out at the agency's leader, Pierre Bordry.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Bordry is new to these issues and his proposal is based on a fundamental failure to understand the facts.
"In 2005, some research was conducted on urine samples left over from the 1998 and 1999 Tours de France," Armstrong said.
"That research was the subject of an independent investigation, and the conclusions of the investigation were that the 1998 and 1999 Tour de France samples have not been maintained properly, have been compromised in many ways, and even three years ago could not be tested to provide any meaningful results.
"There is simply nothing that I can agree to that would provide any relevant evidence about 1999," he continued.
|The allegations from L'Equipe have tainted a glorious career [GALLO/GETTY]
Even so, the proposal renewed debate about one of the most contested questions surrounding Armstrong: Whether he was clean when he won.
He has always insisted that he was, and his new team, Astana, is hiring a
drug-testing expert, who will post Armstrong's drug testing results on the
internet, to try to silence doubters.
In a statement, the agency proposed the rider "prove his good faith" by agreeing to retesting of his samples from the 1999 Tour, the first in Armstrong's record string of seven wins.
The samples are frozen in a drug testing laboratory in the suburbs of Paris.
They've been a source of controversy since French newspaper L'Equipe reported in 2005 that a new round of tests on the B samples found EPO, a blood-boosting hormone that enhances endurance.
The agency said it was acting in the interests "of objectivity and of justice and to allow the cyclist Lance Armstrong to cut short the rumours concerning him, if they are unfounded."
In drug testing, urine is divided into A and B samples, and both must show traces of a banned substance for the test to be declared positive.
But only remains from six B samples have been kept from Armstrong's 1999 Tour, the French agency said.
So even if the B samples came back positive in new testing, there are no A samples left against which to compare results.
Armstrong said then he was the victim of a "witch hunt."
A Dutch lawyer appointed by cycling's governing body later cleared Armstrong.
But Dick Pound, who then led the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the lawyer's findings were full of holes.
And in his statement, Armstrong said that independent investigation recommended the issues be taken before an independent tribunal.
"Two years ago I agreed to have all of these issues aired and decided by that tribunal, but WADA and the French Ministry refused," Armstrong said.
"If Mr. Bordry would now like to re-examine the past, he must start with presenting the issues of the misconduct of the French laboratory, the French Ministry, and WADA before a proper tribunal," he said.
Bordry told French newspaper L'Equipe he wanted to act as "a referee" between the newspaper and Armstrong.
But Bordry seemed to already have an opinion, speaking to the newspaper of samples "which contain erythropoietin (EPO)."
L'Equipe quoted him as saying: "I want this comeback to take place in the best circumstances."
"This way, he will perhaps have the chance to affirm that he never cheated during his brilliant career."
|Contador wants to protect his position as Astana leader [GALLO/GETTY]
Armstrong’s role and leadership position with Astana is also subject to speculation.
Johan Bruyneel, the team cycling director ruled out a departure from Astana by Spain's Contador, who won the Tour de France, Italy's Giro and Spain's Vuelta in little over a year.
The two will have to cooperate, he said.
"At the end of the day, the strongest rider will be supported, regardless
of that person's name or what they've accomplished in the past," Bruyneel
And he left no doubt who was strongest now.
"Alberto has had a magnificent year and is currently the best professional cyclist in the world," Bruyneel said.
After leading Armstrong to seven Tour victories before his initial retirement in 2005, Bruyneel took Contador to victory in the 2007 Tour, and after Astana was denied entry this year, Contador won the Giro and Vuelta instead.
"Lance must prove that he has the physical ability to win big races," Bruyneel said.
"This is not the first time that big names have all been on the same team.
"It has worked out in the past and I'm confident for the same in 2009."
When the 37-year old Armstrong announced his comeback and intention to compete for an eighth Tour title next season, it clashed with the ambitions of Contador, who insisted the leadership of Astana should be his.
The Spaniard let it be known he would leave if he was given a secondary role supporting Armstrong.
Bruyneel ruled that out.
"Alberto signed a contract with Team Astana through 2010," Bruyneel said.
"I have invested a lot of my time into Alberto's development and he will remain with this team for the next two years.
"Actually it's pretty simple, there's a contract and there are no options to leave."
Bruyneel saw a blueprint for the 2009 Tour when Contador finished first in the Vuelta last month, with teammate Levi Leipheimer of the United States closely behind.
"It's no secret that Levi Leipheimer could have won the Vuelta, but it was clear to the team directors that Alberto was the strongest rider," said Bruyneel.
"We have some big names and great leaders on the 2008 squad.
"Adding one more only makes us that much stronger."
Another addition that should strengthen the Astana team is Spanish climber Jesus Hernandez.
He has been a training partner for Contador and should prove useful in leading Contador, or Armstrong, to the decisive stretches of climbs during the Tour.
Armstrong has been an inspiration for Contador.
While the Spaniard was recovering from a blood clot in his brain in 2004, he drew hope from Armstrong's book recounting his comeback from cancer.
The two have not spoken to each other, Bruyneel said, but they are slated to go training together in December.
|Armstrong is awaiting the Down Under ruling [GALLO/GETTY]
Meanwhile, officials of the Tour Down Under, the Australian race which Armstrong had earmarked as his comeback event, said they expected to know by Friday whether the American can compete.
Armstrong wants to return to elite racing in the six-day tour in South Australia state, although technically, due to drug testing regulations, he's not eligible to return until February 1, 2009.
The race in Australia, the first on the 2009 ProTour calendar, runs from January 20-25.
Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur and South Australian government officials announced two weeks ago that Armstrong would make his comeback at the Australian race.
But the UCI requires riders coming out of retirement to be in the sport's
anti-doping program for six months before racing.
Armstrong filed paperwork on August 1 with the US Anti-Doping Agency and said he's already been drug-tested in late August.