Paris - Lance Armstrong, branded a drug cheat and banned from cycling by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), narrowly escaped a police raid on his hotel during the 2005 Tour de France because he was being "protected in France", a French lawyer has claimed.
US cycling icon and cancer survivor Armstrong is set to be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after he gave up the right to fight serious doping claims by the USADA at an independent hearing.
A day after a report in Le Monde newspaper claimed Armstrong had been forewarned of doping controls - theoretically allowing the American to circumvent potential positive tests - French lawyer Thibault de Montbrial said evidence suggested he had also benefited from top level protection in France.
According to De Montbrial, a hotel at which Armstrong and his team were staying during the race's second rest day in Pau in 2005 was set to be raided by police looking for evidence of elaborate doping substances and methods, only for the operation to be aborted at the last minute.
De Montbrial, a lawyer involved in investigating the fallout from the Festina affair which saw the 1998 Tour de Frace descend into farce, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper: "I know that during the Tour de France in 2005, on the second rest day at Pau, the team of Lance Armstrong came within an inch of having its hotel searched.
"A French investigation detail came from Paris to carry out a raid. But I have it on good authority that around five in the afternoon, when they were in front of the hotel, the investigators were told to abort. The scheduled operation was called off at the last minute.
"I do not know who gave the order... But I do know the investigators were furious at having to turn on their heels. The evidence (suggests) Lance Armstrong was indeed protected in France," the lawyer asserted.
On Saturday Michel Rieu, the scientific adviser to France's national anti-doping agency the AFLD claimed Armstrong was "warned before all doping controls".
"The inspectors had a lot of trouble carrying out random checks. Armstrong was always tipped off in advance, so he still had twenty minutes to cover his tracks," Rieu told the paper.
"He could thin his blood or replace his urine. He used the EPO (erythropoietin) only in small quantities, so it was no longer there to detect. We were powerless against this."
EPO is a banned hormone which, thanks to its blood-boosting capabilities, has been used by many endurance athletes over the past 20 years.
USADA said Friday Armstrong will forfeit all titles, medals and prizes earned from August 1, 1998, including his Tour titles from 1999-2005 and the Olympic bronze medal he won in Sydney in 2000.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) and the Tour de France organisers have, for the moment, appeared to stall on the issue.
The UCI said it would make no comment until USADA, in accordance with the rules of the World Anti-Doping Code, issues a "reasoned decision explaining the action taken" to all the parties involved including Armstrong, the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Tour de France organisers said they were waiting on the "relevant authorities, USADA and the International Cycling Union (UCI)" to rule on the issue before making any comment.
Armstrong surprised many by announcing after USADA's statement that he would not fight to clear himself of the official charges levied by USADA through independent arbitration.
Sceptics say the 40-year-old American's decision was logical because at a hearing he faced hearing the public testimony of former teammates and associates who have already given evidence about him.
USADA also insists it has scientific evidence pointing to doping by the Texan.
Armstrong, who finishing second in the Power of Four mountain bike race in Colorado on Saturday, insisted afterwards that "I'm more at ease now than I've been in 10 years," and said his cancer foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the disease, would remain "unaffected by all the noise out there."