By GREG KELLER
PARIS (AP) — Cycling supporters say that Lance Armstrong's fall from grace may actually benefit the sport by demonstrating to potential cheaters what can happen to them if they dope.
Former Tour de France champion Bernard Thevenet told French newspaper Le Monde that Armstrong's lifetime ban and the expected loss of his seven Tour de France titles "is really a very strong message to cycling and those around the sport who might be tempted to cheat."
Cycling's credibility has been repeatedly battered since the Festina scandal in 1998, when entire teams were ejected from the race after carloads of drugs were found by police. The punishments imposed Friday by U.S. anti-doping authorities on one of sport's most highly acclaimed figures follows on sanctions handed to Armstrong contemporaries Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich and Alberto Contador.
That four of the sport's top figures of the last 20 years have been sanctioned is seen by many as a sign that cycling is gradually cleaning up its act.
Tour de France organizers declined to make any detailed comment on Armstrong's case, saying they would wait for a detailed explanation of the official decision from USADA and the UCI, cycling's governing body.
Five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault was dismissive of how Armstrong's case had been handled.
"Frankly, I don't give a damn," Hinault told Ouest France newspaper. "It's his problem, not mine. This problem should have been settled 10 or 15 years ago."
Two-time Tour winner Thevenet said that Armstrong's downfall "is very bad news for cycling" though balanced by the potential deterrent effect for the future.
At the grassroots level, little change is expected to come from cycling's latest scandal.
The cycling boom that Armstrong is credited with sparking in the U.S. continued both during his 2006-08 absence from the sport and since his retirement, according to figures from USA Cycling. Numbers show an uninterrupted increase in USA Cycling's membership, to 70,829 last year from 69,771 a year earlier.
The former deputy head of the Tour de France said the latest twist in Armstrong's case "isn't a surprise, we've been expecting this for a while." Daniel Baal, the Tour deputy director from 2001 to 2004, the pinnacle of Armstrong's reign, said cycling authorities must not stop pursuing others connected to any doping uncovered by the Armstrong investigation.
"My only wish is that USADA go all the way and lay out the whole dossier, because we have to know everything, especially all the accomplices who supported Lance Armstrong," Baal said on France Info radio.
Some doubt remains about the impact on Armstrong's vast and varied business interests. But the initial reaction from his biggest sponsor, Nike Inc., suggests that he retains their support. The sportswear giant issued a statement that said it "plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation "because of Lance's "unwavering" protestations of innocence.
Armstrong's other endorsements include or have included deals with RadioShack Corp., Oakley sunglasses, 24-hour Fitness, Nissan, Anheuser-Busch InBev's Michelob Ultra, FRS energy drinks and Trek bikes. Several of them also support Armstrong's foundation, which he started after he beat cancer.
Former rival Ullrich played down the significance that USADA's decision will have on the sport. Ullrich, who served a two-year doping ban, said, "I'm no longer bothered" about the Armstrong saga.
The retired German racer, constantly second to Armstrong, expressed no desire to rewrite the record book of cycling's greatest event, even though he would be the biggest beneficiary.
"I know how the order was on the finishing line at the time," Ullrich said. "I've finished with my professional career and have always said that I was proud of my second-place finishes."