You have to love Lance Armstrong’s timing.

He won his first Tour de France the year after its biggest scandal and retired the year before a scandal that will probably prove even bigger.

The French seemed awfully glad to be rid of Armstrong after he won his seventh straight Tour last year.

The American was too good, too suspect and, well, too American for their tastes.

“Never to such an extent, probably, has the departure of a champion been welcomed with such widespread relief,” the nation’s leading sports daily opined.

Wonder how they’re feeling about it now.

Forgive Armstrong if he enjoys the last laugh.

Life after Lance was supposed to bring a great new day to the only bike race anybody outside of Europe cares about. Finally gone was the racer so good that almost everyone who has ever ridden on training wheels wondered if he was doped up.

The French went so far as to suggest Armstrong used EPO before his first win in 1999, and even the Tour’s director claimed that everyone was fooled by the wily American.

Their logic was easy enough to understand. Cycling is probably the dirtiest sport of them all, with a long history of riders using everything from cocaine to blood tranfusions to try and get an edge on the competition.

So the suspicion was that the rider who wins everything has to be dirtier than anyone else.

The only problem was that Armstrong never tested positive for anything, and was never caught with anything. On the contrary, he’s spending his retirement in what seems like a full-time job agressively fighting allegations made against him in various places around the world.

Now the guys who were supposed to replace him are gone, too. But, unlike Armstrong, they didn’t leave voluntarily.

Thanks to some Spanish investigators who seem to be taking a page from their BALCO counterparts in the United States, the Tour de France field was stripped of some top names Friday when a number of riders were banned on the eve of the race.

Among them were favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, caught up in cycling’s biggest doping scandal since customs officials got lucky in 1998 and found a large stash of banned drugs in a team car.

The irony is inescapable. All those years of chasing rumors against Armstrong, and now they end up getting the guys who kept finishing behind him.

Both tour and team officials moved quickly once Spanish officials gave them details of a raid earlier this year on a doctor’s office that turned up detailed doping records for various riders, and numerous bags of blood.

Ullrich was riding in a team van on the way to a previously scheduled press conference when he got the word that he, teammate Oscar Sevilla and longtime adviser Rudy Pevenage were implicated.

“We kindly asked our bus driver to turn around and go back to the hotel,” team spokesman Luuc Eisenga said.

If only Major League Baseball acted so quickly with the BALCO investigation. Because if these guys were members of the player’s union, they would still be at the starting line Saturday.

If nothing else, the doping scandal ripped open an already wide open race in the wake of Armstrong’s retirement. Whether anyone outside of France really cares remains to be seen now that the most compelling story line is identifying who is cheating and who is clean.

One of those cheaters is – or rather, was – David Millar of Scotland, who was banned for two years in 2004 after admitting using EPO. Millar returns this year, and should he win it might prove to Armstrong doubters that the race can be won without doping.

“This drug hunt in Spain will be fantastic for cycling because the new generation of riders are gong to be aware that doping is bad for their health and the sport,” a repentant Millar said.

Perhaps. Either that, or they will find a new way to cheat because the money is too good and the glory is too great.

Armstrong, meanwhile, continues his fight to clear his name. On Friday he reached a settlement in his libel suit against the Sunday Times in London, and a few months ago he won a $7.5 million settlement over a bonus an insurance company refused to pay him for his 2004 win because of allegations in a book that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

So far, retirement is looking pretty good for Armstrong.

Maybe the French were a little too quick to bid him adieu.

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