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Don't let rumors soil Armstrong's clean ride

Break up Lance Armstrong.

No, really. Cut him up into the logical parts, perform rigorous tests on every limb, sinew and cell, and belt-sand the rest. It's going to be the only
thing that satisfies the people who think bicycle races are rolling
pharmacies anyway.

Armstrong won his third consecutive Tour de France victory, a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone anyone who beat testicular cancer. He
is by most measures, from the People Magazine measure to the endorsement
measure to the public service announcement measure, an athletic hero.

But a lot of people were heroes until they were found out not to be heroes. Armstrong's speed in the Tour, in fact, can be traced in part to his
attempt to outrun the people who question his much-touted drug-free status in
a sport notorious for its attention to chemical outreach.

Thus, as much as people root actively for his triumph in Paris, they root for him to be dead-cert correct in his assertions that he has been, is,
and will always be drug-free.

Armstrong, you see, is in a strange position, not of his own making. He has chosen to excel at the highest levels of a sport rife with drug use and
abuse, and he has chosen to stand as the beacon for drug-free triumph.

All of which is well and good, all the better if it is in fact true. Here, we see no evidence that it is anything but the truth. We don't know
that no evidence exists, but we surely know that if any did, we haven't seen
it. That's as close to proof as we can get, or as close as Armstrong can show
us. You can't prove that something isn't true, after all.

But proof by insinuation is all the rage these days. Circumstantial evidence meets the standard for accusation. Someone else did it, therefore ...

Armstrong's innocence to date (he's passed every drug tests given him) hasn't stopped the whispers. His relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari (and
if that isn't name out of a Peter Sellers movie, what is?) has made them only louder.

But whispers don't count, not to the innocent. If Armstrong is as clean as the evidence indicates, there isn't a whisper that can change that, or his
position on the dwindling list of heroes without overt blemish in the sports
business.

Sounds good to us, all things considered. That's the way it ought to be.

But Americans forgive hypocrisy last of all. If somehow Armstrong were shown to be other than what he purports, his fall would be swift, sure and
irrevocable. Remember Ben Johnson? Multiply it by 25.

Call it the truly dark side of the business. Lance Armstrong is being
pursued by rumors that don't even connect themselves to him, and he's still
having to answer them. And having achieved what he has, having made himself a
inspirational figure in the most personal way imaginable, those who believe
in athletic role models rather need to him to be as advertised.

In fact, we all do, to an extent.

He is better than most role models in that he doesn't stand in shopping mall lobbies saying, "Hi, Lance Armstrong, Role Model. Want to touch my
bike?" He speaks about beating cancer and about devoting his professional life to being the best bicycle rider he (or anyone else, for that matter) can
be. He doesn't say, "Be like me." He says, "I'm me. You take what example
you want from it."

The distinction is important, because it separates Armstrong from a bunch of cloying, repellent phonies, turning on the charm just before a new
deal.

So we root for Armstrong to be the real deal, even more than we root him to win the only bike race any of us pay any attention to at all. So far, he
hasn't disappointed on either level; those who know him speak unanimously on
his behalf.

That is, except for those who see his rear deflector as it crosses the finish line in Paris, and see the trail of blown drug tests elsewhere in the
sport Lance Armstrong elevates. For them A (Lance Armstrong is the best bike rider on the tour today) still equals B (There are a lot of drug users in
bike racing) and therefore equals C (Armstrong must be on the juice).

The rest of us will just have to live happily with what knowledge there is. That A is true, and B is true. We're a long, long way from C.

It would do us all a world of good to remember that.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com