FILE - This July 23, 2000 file photo shows Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong riding down the Champs Elysees with an American flag after the 21st and final stage of the cycling race in Paris. The superstar cyclist, whose stirring victories after his comeback from cancer helped him transcend sports, chose not to pursue arbitration in the drug case brought against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That was his last option in his bitter fight with USADA and his decision set the stage for the titles to be stripped and his name to be all but wiped from the record books of the sport he once ruled. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours, File)
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency erased 14 years of Lance Armstrong's career Friday — including his record seven Tour de France titles — and banned him for life from the sport that made him a hero to millions of cancer survivors after concluding he used banned substances.
USADA said it expected cycling's governing body to take similar action, but the International Cycling Union was measured in its response, saying it first wanted a full explanation on why Armstrong should relinquish Tour titles he won from 1999 through 2005.
The Amaury Sport Organization that runs the world's most prestigious cycling race said it would not comment until hearing from the UCI and USADA, which contends the cycling body is bound by the World Anti-Doping Code to strip Armstrong of one of the most incredible achievements in sports.
Armstrong, who retired a year ago, said Thursday that he would no longer challenge USADA and declined to exercise his last option by entering arbitration. He denied again that he ever took banned substances in his career, calling USADA's investigation a "witch hunt" without a shred of physical evidence.
He is now officially a drug cheat in the eyes of his nation's doping agency.
"Any time we have overwhelming proof of doping, our mandate is to initiate the case through the process and see it to conclusion as was done in this case," said USADA chief executive Travis Tygart, who couched the investigation as a battle against a "win-at-all-cost culture."
Tygart said the UCI was "bound to recognize our decision and impose it."
"They have no choice but to strip the titles under the code," he said.
The UCI and USADA have engaged in a turf war over who should prosecute allegations against Armstrong. The UCI event backed Armstrong's failed legal challenge to USADA's authority, and it cited the same World Anti-Doping Code in saying that it wanted to hear more from the American agency.
"As USADA has claimed jurisdiction in the case the UCI expects that it will issue a reasoned decision" explaining the action taken, the Switzerland-based organization said in a statement. It said legal procedures obliged USADA to fulfill this demand in cases "where no hearing occurs."
The International Olympic Committee said Friday it will await decisions by USADA and UCI before taking any steps against Armstrong, who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. Besides the disqualifications, Armstrong will forfeit any medals, winnings, points and prizes, USADA said, but the lost titles that now dominate his legacy.
Every one of Armstrong's competitive races from Aug. 1, 1998, has been vacated by USADA, established in 2000 as the official anti-doping agency for Olympic sports in the United States. Since Armstrong raced in UCI-sanctioned events, he was subject to international drug rules enforced in the U.S. by USADA. Its staff joined a federal criminal investigation of Armstrong that ended earlier this year with no charges being filed.
USADA, which announced its investigation in June, said its evidence came from more than a dozen witnesses "who agreed to testify and provide evidence about their firsthand experience and/or knowledge of the doping activity of those involved in the USPS conspiracy," a reference to Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service cycling team.
The unidentified witnesses said they knew or had been told by Armstrong himself that he had "used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone" from before 1998 through 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and Human Growth Hormone through 1996, USADA said. Armstrong also allegedly handed out doping products and encouraged banned methods — and even used "blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions" during his 2009 comeback race on the Tour.
In all, USADA said up to 10 former Armstrong teammates were set to testify against him. Included in the case were emails sent by Floyd Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for doping, describing an elaborate doping program on Armstrong's Postal Service teams, and Tyler Hamilton's interview with "60 Minutes" claiming had personal knowledge of Armstrong doping.
Had Armstrong chosen to pursue arbitration, USADA said, all the evidence would have been available for him to challenge.
"He chose not to do this knowing these sanctions would immediately be put into place," the statement said.
The decision surprised riders around the world.
At the Spanish Vuelta, riders including former rival and teammate Alberto Contador joined ex-Armstrong coach Johan Bruyneel in offering support. Another former rival, Filippo Simeoni, wondered why Armstrong dropped his fight..
"It leaves me a bit perplexed, because someone like him, with all the fame and popularity and millions of dollars he has, should fight to the end if he's innocent," Simeoni said. "But I guess he realized it was a useless fight and the evidence USADA had was too great."
At the USA Pro Challenge in Breckenridge, Colo., longtime friend Jim Ochowicz said he supported Armstrong's decision.
"He has done so much for our sport over the years and I am sad at what has transpired," he said. "I think he has earned every victory he's had."
Bruyneel said Armstrong was the victim of an "unjust" legal case.
"Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight in his life so his decision today underlines what an unjust process this has been," Bruyneel wrote on his personal website. The Belgian, who manages the Radioshack Nissan-Trek team, has his own legal battle with USADA. He has opted for arbitration to fight charges that he led doping programs for Armstrong's teams.
Armstrong clearly knew his legacy would be blemished by his decision. But he said he has grown tired of defending himself in a seemingly never-ending fight against charges that he doped while piling up more Tour victories than anyone ever. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he passed as proof of his innocence during his extraordinary run of Tour titles.
"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me, that time is now," Armstrong said Thursday night, hours before the deadline to enter arbitration.
"Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances," he said. "I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities."
Although he had already been crowned a world champion and won individual stages at the Tour de France, Armstrong was still relatively unknown in the U.S. until he won the epic race for the first time in 1999. It was the ultimate comeback tale: When diagnosed with cancer, doctors had given him less than a 50 percent chance of survival before surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.
Armstrong's riveting victories, his work for cancer awareness and his gossip-page romances with rocker Sheryl Crow, fashion designer Tory Burch and actress Kate Hudson made him a figure who transcended sports.
His dominance of the Tour de France elevated the sport's popularity in the U.S. to unprecedented levels. His story and success helped sell millions of the "Livestrong" plastic yellow wrist bracelets, and enabled him to enlist lawmakers and global policymakers to promote cancer awareness and research. His Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised nearly $500 million since its founding in 1997.
Foundation officials said they remained "proud" of Armstrong and had received hundreds of messages of support from donors, partners and supporters since his announcement. Among them was Nike Inc., which said it planned to continue supporting Armstrong and the foundation.
"Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position," the company said.
American Century Investments, another partner, said: "While the actions taken against Lance are unfortunate, we understand his decision to drop his challenge to the USADA charges. The USADA may sanction Lance and attempt to strip his titles, but no one can take away what he's done for the 28 million people around the world living with cancer."
Questions surfaced even as Armstrong was on his way to his first Tour victory. He was leading the 1999 race when a trace amount of a banned anti-inflammatory corticosteroid was found in his urine; cycling officials said he was authorized to use a small amount of a cream to treat saddle sores.
After Armstrong's second victory in 2000, French judicial officials investigated his Postal Service team for drug use. That investigation ended with no charges, but the allegations kept coming.
Others close to Armstrong were caught up in the investigations, too: Bruyneel, the coach of Armstrong's teams, and three members of the medical staff and a consultant were also charged. Bruyneel is taking his case to arbitration, while two medical team staffers and consulting doctor Michele Ferrari didn't formally contest the charges and were issued lifetime bans by USADA. Ferrari later said he was innocent.
Armstrong was criticized for his relationship with Ferrari, who was banned by Italian authorities over doping charges in 2002. Former personal and team assistants accused Armstrong of having steroids in an apartment in Spain and disposing of syringes that were used for injections.
In 2004, a Dallas-based promotions company initially refused to pay him a $5 million bonus for winning his sixth Tour de France because it wanted to investigate allegations raised by media in Europe. Testimony in that case included former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, saying Armstrong told doctors during his 1996 cancer treatments that he had taken a cornucopia of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong retired in 2005 and almost immediately considered a comeback before deciding to stay on the sidelines — in part because he didn't want to keep answering doping questions. Three years later, Armstrong was 36 and itching to ride again. He came back to finish third in the 2009 Tour de France.
Armstrong raced again in 2010 under the cloud of the federal investigation. Early last year, he quit for good, making a brief return as a triathlete until the USADA investigation shut him down.
"He had a right to contest the charges," WADA President John Fahey said. "He chose not to. The simple fact is that his refusal to examine the evidence means the charges had substance in them."
AP National Writer Eddie Pells, AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar and Paul Logothetis and AP freelance writer James Raia contributed to this report.