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Armstrong Begins Cycling Comeback

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Jamie McDonald, AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Jamie McDonald, AFP/Getty Images

ADELAIDE, Australia — In all the years he wore the leader's yellow jersey while winning a record seven Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong was called many things. He was "mellow yellow" only to his teammates.

On the eve of his stirring comeback, Armstrong spoke of avoiding "drama" and keeping expectations "modest" at this week's Tour Down Under, where he returns to the sport after a more than three-year hiatus.

He followed through on that pledge by taking it easy in his first action with a pro field Sunday, finishing 64th among 133 riders in a 30-mile criterium in downtown Adelaide.

More than 138,000 people watched Armstrong return from three years of retirement and he stayed well back in a tight field on a winding circuit around leafy Rymill Park, following team instructions to avoid any chance of crashing.

Can the 37-year-old cancer survivor really be so lighthearted?

"I'm relaxed because I'm having fun, a hellava lot of fun," said Armstrong, who appeared tan, fit and eager during a wide-ranging, hour-long news conference Saturday, in which he sometimes lectured, sometimes joked but mostly stood on his cancer soapbox in a lively session with a packed room of reporters. "I can't say that 2004-05 was like that. It became a job then."

Armstrong reiterated that his primary purpose in returning to the sport he once dominated is to raise worldwide awareness against the disease that nearly took his life when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. His charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, has already raised more than $250 million. But he has also "recaptured the passion" to race.

The Texan is using the Tour Down Under to re-acclimate himself to the feel of the peloton, and to prepare himself for February's more rigorous Tour of California on home soil.

"Not to sound like a slacker, but certainly (I have) no major goals except to get back into the rhythm of racing," he said before Sunday night's tune-up around Adelaide.

Failure, he added, would be a broken collarbone from a crash or being dropped in the first climb.

Testing underway

Armstrong's Tour de France victories from 1999-2005 were built on freakish physiology, scrupulous planning, unbridled determination and a well-chronicled mean streak. These days, he sends out blog messages on Twitter and, at least outwardly, is keeping his knife-like stares under wraps.

If Armstrong has his way, the road that begins in Adelaide on Tuesday (Monday night ET) will conclude the last Sunday in July on the Champs-Elysees in Paris with the Texan in the maillot juane — the perfect backdrop for the Global Cancer Initiative summit in the French capital the next day.

Armstrong last stood on the podium in 2005 with his rivals, German Jan Ullrich and Italy's Ivan Basso. Both later joined an increasingly long line of top cyclists such as 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis that were tied to performance-enhancing drugs.

Dogged for years by allegations of doping, Armstrong, who has denied using performance-enhancing drugs and has never tested positive, announced in September that he would hire respected anti-doping expert Don Catlin in an effort to erase any doubts about his race results. With transparency would come credibility.

Armstrong confirmed Saturday that he and Catlin, the former chief of the UCLA anti-doping laboratory, had finally reached an agreement.

"It's underway and formalized," said Armstrong, who has been tested twice in Adelaide and a dozen times in the last few months by other entities. "If anyone has questions about performance this year, it can hopefully answer those questions."

According to a press release from Armstrong's Astana team, he will be tested every three days and Catlin will "issue reports" on an ongoing basis.

How information will be disseminated remains unclear, meaning public scrutiny of the testing may have to wait. Armstrong previously said the results would be posted on a website before his first race.

"Once we get through the first batch of testing, then Don will decide how to publicize it," Armstrong said Saturday.

Publicity in Adelaide has been no problem. Armstrong's return has set this laid-back city of 1.1 million abuzz.

His visage is plastered everywhere; hotels are chockablock; and record numbers of fans are expected to turn out for the week-long race. South Australia's Premier Mike Rann even called it the biggest sporting event in the history of the state.

"The attention has been more than I've expected," said Armstrong, who is also receiving a reported $1 million appearance fee from race organizers.

The Lance effect is being felt back home, too.

For the first time, the Tour Down Under will appear on cable channel Versus in the USA. Race organizers for the Tour of California, where Armstrong is slated to compete next month, say they will have double the hours of domestic TV and expect far more than the 1.1 million fans that saw last year's race.

"It brings the sport back to the spotlight," says Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling.

Early expectations

Not everyone has greeted his return to the sport with open arms, including Armstrong's Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour de France champion.

The Spaniard has toned down his initial ambivalence, telling France's L'Eqiupe last week, "At first, I didn't think that 'cohabitation' would be possible, but now the situation is better than I could have imagined."

Astana team director Johan Bruyneel said Armstrong and Contador, who is not in Adelaide, would only race together in the Tour de France, setting up a potential showdown for leadership in the prestigious grand tour.

Cofidis team director Francis Van Londersele said Armstrong's return boosts cycling's profile but has been met with wariness in his home country, not only because of the specter of doping that has always hovered over his success but also because it overshadows the current crop of new stars.

"In France, the comeback of Armstrong is not appreciated," Van Londersele said in French through a translator. "We don't understand why he came back after winning so much."

Riders, for the most part, seem enthusiastic.

"It's great to have that kind of attention back on the sport," said Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, who won the 2006 Tour de France after Landis' result was invalidated.

Few, including Armstrong, expect him to win the six-stage, 497-mile Tour Down Under. The course is too short, too flat, and offers no time trials, one of Armstrong's signature strengths.

Plus, it's too early in the season for him to think about peaking when his main goal remains the Tour de France, and a shot at the Giro d'Italia in May.

Armstrong has never ridden the Giro but says he thinks he can do well there and also win the Tour de France.

"I don't want to say I feel the same as I did in my early thirties, but I'm not far off," he says.

"I have no doubts he can come back to his (Tour de France winning) level," said Bruyneel, who oversaw all seven of Armstrong's wins at the Tour de France with U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams.

Those closest to Armstrong say look out.

"I've never seen him so fired up," said George Hincapie, a domestique for Armstrong in his Tour de France titles and now with Team Columbia-HighRoad.

"There's a chance he could be even stronger than he was in 2005," wrote his longtime personal coach, Chris Carmichael, in an email after returning from a training camp with Armstrong in Hawaii this month.

Armstrong said he would not hold back in the days ahead.

"I promise you I will attack," he said.

Testing the legs

Sunday's criterium did not count toward Tour Down Under overall standings.

"That was fun," the 37-year-old Armstong said after the race. "It felt good. I've been training a lot for this comeback and this race. It's good the first day is over and now I can get into the racing."

Australia's Robbie McEwen — a winner of 12 stages in the Tour de France — won the race for the Russian Team Katusha ahead of Willem Stroetinga of the Netherlands and fellow Australian Graeme Brown.

Armstrong was ushered to the front of the field for the start of the race with another Tour de France winner, Pereiro and defending Tour Down Under champion Andre Greipel of Germany and Australian Stuart O'Grady.

The seven-time Tour de France winner quickly settled in the middle of the peleton, avoiding any possibility of pileups on the tight corners of the 1-mile circuit.

"I think the last time I did that fast a race was back in probably 1990," Armstrong said. "It's fun to get back into it. I found it a bit safer and easier in the back.

"There was a lot of anxiety before today but it was good for the first day."

Johan Bruyneel, the head of Armstrong's Astana team, was more effusive about the significance of the legendary racer's comeback ride.

"It's a special day," he said. "There's been a lot of talk since August about his comeback and finally it's a fact, so it's a very special moment.

"The instructions were for Lance and the whole team not to concentrate too much about the race but just to get through it. For him it's an important moment to finally put that race number on his back and he's a racer again."