Eve of Tour anouncement sets stage for what is likely to be stormy arbitration hearing

Just hours before the start of the 2012 Tour de France, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has confirmed that its Review Board has unanimously recommended that formal charges be laid against Lance Armstrong, the most successful rider in the race’s history, as well as other individuals including RadioShack Nissan manager Johan Bruyneel – not present at this year’s Tour – and Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari.

In a statement sent to road.cc and other media outlets today – one could be forgiven for thinking that the timing was due to a sense of history with a long tradition of eve-of-tour doping stories – the agency said: “USADA can confirm that the independent three person Anti-Doping Review Board (ADRB) has conducted a full evaluation and has made a unanimous recommendation to move forward with the adjudication process in accordance with the rules.

“All respondents will have the opportunity to exercise their right to a full public arbitration hearing, should they so choose, where all evidence would be presented, witness testimony would be given under oath, and an independent group of arbitrators would ultimately decide the outcome of the case.

“USADA will continue to follow the established procedures that are compliant with federal law and were approved by athletes, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and all Olympic sports organizations.”

The latest development is bound to cast a shadow over this weekend’s Grand Départ of the 99th edition of the race. It raises the prospect of the 40-year-old, should he be found guilty of having taken part in what USADA alleges was a “massive doping conspiracy,” be stripped of one or more of his seven Tour de France wins; it is less than six months that the Court of Arbitration for Sport stripped Alberto Contador of his 2010 title.

Armstrong’s recent statements on the issue, plus those made on his behalf by parties including his publicist and his lawyer, suggest that he plans to fight the allegations every inch of the way, which would include what is most likely to be an explosive arbitration hearing that could be every bit as dramatic and full of twists and turns as a Grand Tour.

Commenting on the latest development, Armstrong’s attorney, Robert Lushkin, quoted in USA Today, said that the move to charge his client was “"wrong and it is baseless."

"It is the entirely predictable product of USADA's toxic obsession with Lance Armstrong and a process in which truth is not a priority," he continued. "There is not one shred of credible evidence to support USADA's charges and an unbroken record of more than 500 clean tests over more than a decade and a half to refute it."

News that USADA planned to charge Armstrong emerged earlier this month, with a 15-page letter detailing allegations – but not the names of key witnesses – sent to the rider who monopolised the top step of the Champs-Elysées podium each year from 1999 to 2005, and to others facing charges.

Armstrong vehemently denies the charges, pointing out, as he has done whenever his name has been linked to doping, that he has never tested positive, although rumours persist that a positive test during the 2001 Tour de Suisse was covered up with the help of world cycling’s governing body, the UCI.

USADA says that it has testimony from at least ten former team mates of Armstrong who are apparently prepared to testify against him, although despite the rider’s demands to know their identity, it has so far preserved their anonymity. The identity of some can probably be easily guessed at, however – Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu plus possibly George Hincapie, who was reported last year to have provided similar evidence to the now-shelved Federal Grand Jury investigation into doping centred around Armstrong and other US Postal Service team personnel.

The former cyclist, who finally retired from the sport early in 2011 and has turned his hand to Ironman triathlon events this year was due to compete in the Nice Ironman this week – he lived in the French city at the time he won his first Tour de France title following his comeback from cancer. However, he missed that event as a result of being suspended from all competition since that USADA letter was sent out a little over two weeks ago.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.