Former boss backs Armstrong
Lance Armstrong, who is poised to be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after relinquishing his fight against drug charges, has received backing from former team boss Johan Bruyneel and Eddy Merckx.
The pair were speaking hours after Armstrong, winner of the Tour between 1999 and 2005, dropped his challenge against the long-running campaign to prove he had used drugs while at the same time reaffirming his innocence.
"Today I am disappointed for Lance and for cycling in general, that things have reached such a point that Lance has had enough and no longer wants to challenge the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) campaign against him," said Bruyneel.
"Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight in his life so his decision today underlines what an unjust process this has been," he said on his website johanbruyneel.com
The USADA has accused Bruyneel of involvement in systematic doping in his former role as sporting director of US Postal and Discovery Channel for whom Armstrong rode when winning his seven Tour titles.
"I hope that it will soon be determined that the case that USADA initiated against me should never have gotten as far as it has," the Belgian former Tour de France stage winner added.
"Due to the sensitive nature of legal proceedings, I have been advised that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage."
Five-time Tour de France winner Merckx also spoke out in the Texan's favour.
"Lance Armstrong is disillusioned and is up against an unjust process," the legendary Belgian, nicknamed "The Cannibal", declared.
"At a certain point there's a disenchantment that sets in. Lance is saying to USADA 'do what you want, now I don't care'.
"Lance was always very correct during his career. What more can he do? All the tests he's undertaken, more than 500 since 2000, have come back negative. So, either the tests don't count for anything, or Armstrong is 'legit'.
"The entire process (against him) is founded on witnesses. It's deeply unjust."
In contrast, another five-time Tour de France champion, Bernard Hinault, was unsympathetic to Armstrong's plight.
"I couldn't give a damn," the French cycling icon told ouest-france.fr. "It's his problem, not mine. This is a problem that should have been sorted out 10 or 15 years ago but which never was."
There was anger among cyclists and former riders at the Tour of Spain, with Oscar Pereiro – handed the 2006 Tour victory after winner US Floyd Landis was stripped of his title for doping – describing the situation as "pathetic".
"It casts doubts in everyone's eyes about the anti-doping system, despite the massive budget at their disposal. They shouldn't bother," he said at the start of the seventh stage in Huesca, northeast Spain.
"I'm convinced that the riders who spoke out against Armstrong have done so on condition that they won't be punished and that they won't have their winnings withdrawn. Is that right?"
Alberto Contador, returning to the sport after a ban for doping that cost him his 2010 Tour de France title, refused to comment.
But the winner of the 1988 Tour, Pedro Delgado, now a commentator on Spanish television, described Armstrong as "a strong-willed character who has done a lot for cycling" but who nevertheless had many enemies.
He questioned the wisdom of returning to the issue so many years later, assessing that it made "no sense".
"You talk about cheating but rather than trying to get justice, I think it's more about a power struggle between institutions. You can't now take away podium wins from a rider who's given his all," he added.
"It's bad news for cycling and we know that the victims are always cyclists."