By MICHAEL CASEY, Associated Press
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Cycling teams at the Tour of Qatar welcomed the end of a U.S. federal investigation into Lance Armstrong, saying Sunday they were hopeful the seven-time Tour de France champion could finally move on with his life.
Federal prosecutors dropped their investigation of Armstrong on Friday, ending a nearly two-year effort to determine whether the American cyclist and his teammates were involved in doping. Armstrong has long denied doping and said he was "gratified" by the decision.
Laurenzo Lapage, the Greenedge cycling sporting director who worked with Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams from 2003-07, said the decision reaffirmed what most colleagues of Armstrong had long believed: He isn't a doper.
"Everyone who knows Lance and was racing and working with him knew this before," Lapage said as his team prepared for the first stage of the Tour of Qatar.
"It was not a surprise for anyone. It's a good feeling that the truth is out now," Lapage said. "The guy had a lot of success and a lot of people were jealous. ... People tried to break him down with lies and it is really good thing everything (is) over for him now. He did a lot of great things for cycling. It is his moment to live in peace."
Johnny Weltz, the sporting director of the American team Garmin-Barracuda who rode with Armstrong on the Motorola team in 1995, said Armstrong was an easy target.
"The people who (made) these charges, they wanted to be Lance and didn't manage it," Weltz said. "So OK you can hit him in another way. These aren't the right people to judge. For us and cycling, it was best that it was a federal investigation. They had no knowledge up front and no past in the sport. I think most justice happens that way."
Investigators looked at whether a doping program was established for Armstrong's team while, at least part of the time, it received government sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service. They also examined whether Armstrong encouraged or facilitated doping on the team.
Armstrong won the Tour de France every year from 1999-2005.
Several riders contend Armstrong doped, including disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, who claims Armstrong had a long-running doping system in place while they were teammates. Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for drug use, acknowledged in 2010 he used performance-enhancing drugs after years of denying he cheated.
Tyler Hamilton also alleged in a "60 Minutes" interview last May that he saw Armstrong use EPO during the 1999 Tour de France and in preparation for the 2000 and '01 Tours.
"You can always bring questions up for everything. We are used to that in our world. You suspect someone if they do well," Weltz said.
"You can't go further when you have a federal investigation for two years and they don't nail him. You have to let the guy go," he said. "He was acting properly in (the) same environment as everyone else. He won his victories in a credible way."
However, a former teammate of Armstrong distanced himself from Weltz's comments several hours later.
"Yeah, I'm pretty upset by that statement. Really stupid," said Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the Garmin-Barracuda team, on his official Twitter feed. "It's a stupid comment. I've told him that."
Vaughters, who rode with Armstrong in the 1999 Tour de France with the U.S. Postal team, replied to further questions from Twitter followers asking why Weltz said what he did.
"Johnny was not being respectful with that thoughtless statement," Vaughters wrote.
Lapage said he never saw any evidence of doping during his time with Armstrong, insisting his success came down to a strong work ethic and natural talent.
"When you work for these people, you see the way they work, the way they train," Lapage said. "It's easy when you are against them to find something you think, 'Ah, it's not normal.' But if you see the big champions and normal champions, they are healthy and strong and also from nature they have something extra and they work with it."
Several riders, including world sprint champion Mark Cavendish and former Armstrong teammate Yaroslav Popovych, refused to discuss the Armstrong matter ahead of their race in Doha. Officials from Popovych's Radioshack-Nissan team also declined comment.