SAINT-QUENTIN, France — The Tour de France is shadowed again by Lance Armstrong and doping.
The subject returned with a vengeance to cycling's greatest race Thursday, and caught in the turmoil were four riders and a team manager who years ago helped Armstrong on the way to his seven Tour titles.
All this on a day when Germany's Andre Greipel won the fifth stage — his second in a row — in a sprint after the 122-mile trek from Rouen to Saint-Quentin, north of Paris. Fabian Cancellara kept the race lead for a sixth straight day.
The ride got off to a bumpy start after a Dutch newspaper reported the former Armstrong teammates cut a deal with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for their testimony in a doping case against him.
Daily De Telegraaf, citing "well-informed sources," said USADA had given six-month bans to Jonathan Vaughters, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde.
Later Thursday, The New York Times reported online that four of those riders — all but Vaughters — would testify in the agency's case. The paper cited two unidentified people with knowledge of the case who requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Vaughters, now a team director at the Garmin-Sharp team, called the Dutch report "completely untrue." The others declined to comment, though Hincapie said his thoughts were with Armstrong.
"I'm sad he is going through this," said Hincapie, the only rider to have been on all of Armstrong's Tour-winning teams. "He's done so many things for the sport. His accomplishments are incredible."
The revelations amount to a new twist in a swirling drama over the legacy of cycling's greatest global superstar — this time putting some of his former friends and teammates on the spot.
USADA refused to confirm the report, while cautioning in a statement that the five named could be subject to "unnecessary scrutiny, threats and intimidation."
As is often the case, the riders are likely to put their heads down, and hope that the affair blows over in time. Vande Velde and Zabriskie rode away from questions about the issue before Thursday's start.
But it's a cloud that could chase them throughout the Tour, an additional complication and distraction in a sport that's already physically and mentally grueling. Vande Velde, who crashed this week, and fellow Garmin-Sharp rider Zabriskie want to help Canadian teammate Ryder Hesjedal win the Tour. Leipheimer, the leader of the Omega Pharma QuickStep team, has long-shot victory hopes of his own.
From afar, Armstrong — who has unfailingly denied doping during his career — reiterated his charge that USADA was looking for a "vendetta" against him.
After leaving the Tour for good in 2010, the Texan's travails in the doping case have revived memories of a dark era in cycling in the late 1990s and 2000s when scandals badly tarnished the sport's image. Sport authorities have since taken steps to root out drugs cheats.
Cancellara worried that Armstrong's case might linger over the sport.
"For cycling this is not good, that's for sure," he said. "That makes me sad. But on the other hand, we have to deal with that and I hope it's not something that is going to take three or four years like ... in other cases.