Lance Armstrong of the US completed his official comeback from retirement with an impressive day of racing in the first stage of the Tour Down Under yesterday.
Andre Greipel of Germany, won took four stages while winning last year’s race, took out the first stage in a bunch sprint following 140km of racing between Norwood and Mawson Lakes.
It makes Team Columbia sprinter Greipel the overall race leader, with Australians Baden Cooke and Stuart O’Grady — second and third respectively on the stage — just behind him ahead of today’s first real climbing test.
Armstrong is lying back in 120th place.
The second stage, a 145km ride from Hahndorf to Stirling, features four laps of an undulating circuit. But on the evidence of yesterday’s opener, Armstrong should have no problems.
The Texan admitted before the stage he had some pre-race nerves, but as the peloton slowly ate into and digested a two-man escape he rode with ease at the front of the bunch. On the only difficulty at Checker Hill, a 600m climb at an average gradient of 13.3 percent, Armstrong was among those setting an easy tempo up the climb.
“On steep little hills I felt pretty strong,” Armstrong said.
He added that the dry heat of south Australia had reminded him how tough racing can be.
“The course combined with the temperature in the 40s, it was tough,” Armstrong said. “It’s a dry heat, it affects performance a lot, it’s no way to perform at a high level. I must have gone through 15-20 bottles [of liquids].”
Inside the final 20km 19-year-old Australian Jack Bobridge of UniSA produced a valiant attempt at taking out the win before he was reeled in during the final 4km.
Greipel then surged ahead in the final few hundred meters to beat UniSA’s Cooke and Saxo Bank rider O’Grady with relative ease.
However, the muscular German, known as the “gorilla,” said he harbored no ambitions to defend his title in a race that has been toughened up by organizers.
“I think we were the strongest team today and we had a really good lead-out for the sprint,” Greipel said. “It was a good start for the team. Tomorrow’s a really hard stage, but we will try to defend the leader’s jersey.”
Australian veteran McEwen — who won the pre-race criterium — is uncertain to start for his Katusha team after suffering a nasty bump and gash on his right forearm, thanks to an overzealous fan who he said stuck out a “big camera” in a bid to snap the action.
Today’s second stage and Saturday’s hilly fifth stage appear the most likely to attract Armstrong if he really wants to test himself.
Armstrong said he did not rule out racing next year.
“We’ll see how it goes but maybe I’ll do one more season,” he told French sports daily L’Equipe. “I’m having fun at the moment and I dont want to fix myself a limit.”
“I have already won on the road but I have never won the heart of the French people and that’s probably the most difficult”, said Armstrong, whose seven Tour de France victories have long been the subject of unfounded accusations over doping.
Armstrong said he had been tested 13 times since announcing his comeback and added he was in great shape.
“My age, of course,” he said when asked to describe the difference between now and when he announced his retirement in 2005. “But I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. You can’t compare January 2009 with 2001 or 2002, for instance. I’m in much better shape.