Cycling legend Armstrong back in saddle for stage race

January 20th, 2009 - 1:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Adelaide, Jan 20 (DPA) Cycling legend Lance Armstrong was back in the saddle Tuesday in his first stage race since the last of his seven Tour de France victories in 2005.The 37-year-old Texan is out of retirement and at the head of the Astana Team in Australia’s six-day Tour Down Under in the south-coast city of Adelaide.

The gods smiled on the cycling god with the temperature a balmy 25 degrees and most of the 133 riders in the 140-kilometre stage taking things easy on the first day of the opening tour of the 2009 professional road racing season.

The world’s most famous cancer survivor had his first taste of top-class racing Sunday in the 51-kilometre street circuit leg that was the curtain raiser to the 11th edition of the Tour Down Under. He finished in the pack.

Armstrong arrived a week ago from brutal training in Hawaii. “I still go in with modest expectations - mixed with nerves and excitement,” Armstrong said. “No major goals - other than to make it through and get back to the rhythm of racing.”

Armstrong has signed up for a gentle reintroduction to the rigours of road racing. The Tour Down Under, mostly over flat countryside and with stages averaging just 133 kilometres, is a world away from the savage climbs and 200-kilometre-plus stages of the Tour de France and other European majors.

Australia’s Stuart O’Grady, a two-time Tour Down Under winner, has joined others in predicting that Armstrong will show his mettle in the hilly stages Wednesday and Saturday, the penultimate stage, when the peleton tackles Willunga Hill - and an event-winning breakaway could be possible.

“He’s still one of the most gifted athletes to have walked the planet,” O’Grady said. “He’s a super-freak athlete, and we can’t forget that, even if he’s been out of the game for a few years.”

The Tour Down Under is unique in the 15-event ProTour calendar with all nights spent in Adelaide, with riders driven to the start of each outlying stage.

Race director Mike Turtur warned that the race had been toughened up after it earned ProTour status last year. Sprinters have dominated the race in previous years, with the usual ending being a bunch finish and only seconds separating those on the podium.

“It means that, in my opinion, you can be two minutes down on general classification and still win,” he said. “In the past, that wasn’t possible. It’s opened the race up.”

Australia’s Rabobank Team rider Graeme Brown said that Tuesday’s stage would likely come down to a bunch sprint. “We’re going to do it in the last 4 kilometres, where it counts,” Brown said.

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