Reporter denies Lance's allegations
FIGEAC, France -- Lance Armstrong's day was far from over when he stepped off his bike after finishing ninth in Thursday's stage of the Tour de France.
Once again, Armstrong found himself fending off the suspicions that have dogged him since he won the first of his five straight championships after coming back from cancer.
Armstrong said a French TV station tried to get into his hotel room in hopes of finding evidence of doping, and three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond voiced doubts that his fellow American is clean.
"They show up and they ask sporting questions to our face, but as soon as they leave they're digging in the rooms and looking for dirt," Armstrong said. "If you left a B vitamin sitting there, that would get on TV and that would be a scandal. That's what we have to live with every day."
The 32-year-old Texan said he was concerned the reporter from TV station France 3 might have tried to plant banned substances to frame him. Within his team, there are fears that some in France do not want an American to win a record six Tours.
Armstrong said the television crew tried to persuade hotel staff to let them into his room after he left to go race.
He said the reporter who visited his hotel "has been following us for months and it's scandalous."
"The scary thing is, if they don't find anything and get frustrated after a couple of months ... well, who's to say they won't put something there and say, 'Look what we've found,' " Armstrong said. "They see the sport as a target, an easy target."
The France 3 reporter, Hugues Huet, said he went to the hotel to do interviews about Armstrong's teammates and that he chatted to the hotel manager for a few minutes. But he denied he sought access to the champion's room.
"It's completely ridiculous," Huet told The Associated Press. "We do have ethics and we don't do just anything. ... If I played around by searching his room like that, I would be breaking the limits."
The 11th stage, won by Frenchman David Moncoutie, did not change the overall time gap between Armstrong and his main rival, German Jan Ullrich, still 55 seconds behind.
Saving themselves for the arduous and likely decisive climbs in the Pyrenees, which start Friday, and the Alps, they did not react when Moncoutie and two other riders surged ahead.
The stage win was Moncoutie's first in five Tours and the third by a French rider this year.
"To win a Tour stage is fabulous," said Moncoutie, who comes from the rural region crossed Thursday. "It was one of my dreams."
A herd of six cows trotting along the 102-mile trek from Saint-Flour to Figeac momentarily held up the pack. After a first week of cold and rain, a blazing sun baked riders.
"We're tired and really cooked," Armstrong said.
He finished in a group that included Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Tyler Hamilton and Ivan Basso, 5 minutes and 58 seconds behind Moncoutie's mark of 3 hours, 54 minutes and 58 seconds.
French champion Thomas Voeckler, also in that group, retained the overall lead, still 9 minutes and 35 seconds ahead of sixth-placed Armstrong. But the 25-year-old French rider is expected to lose the lead to top riders in the mountains.
Armstrong has been cheered by French fans waving the American flag. But others bristle at the prospect of a Texan overtaking the four other five-time champions, who include Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.
One roadside cardboard sign Thursday read, "Lance Go Home."
Within his team, aides are concerned that fans or reporters might try to derail his Tour -- even recalling the stabbing of American tennis star Monica Seles. Armstrong travels with bodyguards during the three-week race.
"Nothing against the French but in France they're after us and they're after the sport of cycling," Armstrong said. "It's not just the Ministry of Sport, it's the media."
Armstrong has often had testy relations with some sections of the French press. He has also raised cycling fans' hackles by focusing on winning the Tour, while neglecting lesser races. Some also feel that he has not always respected Tour traditions.
Armstrong himself acknowledges he was sometimes brash in his early days but says he's become a Tour fan.
Allegations of doping have also clouded his image. Armstrong says he has never taken banned drugs to enhance his performance.
In an interview published Thursday by Le Monde, a respected French daily that previously leveled claims of drug use by Armstrong, LeMond voiced doubts about his fellow American.
"Lance is ready to do anything to keep his secret," LeMond told the paper. "I don't know how he can continue to convince everybody of his innocence."
Armstrong shrugged off the suspicions.
"Greg LeMond was my idol as I grew up in cycling because he was a great champion and did amazing things on the bike," he said in a statement. "Many of his performances were so incredible especially his remarkable return to form and win at the '89 Tour. I'm disappointed and dismayed that for the past four years Greg has continued to question my performances and my character."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press