Lance feeds off young energy in peloton
For the past couple of days, Australian track cycling phenom Jack Bobridge -- born in 1989, the year a then-18-year-old Armstrong first became a national triathlon champion -- has been on the receiving end of a few Armstrong double-takes during the Tour Down Under.
"I had heard how good he was, but I didn't know how aggressive he was," Armstrong said Wednesday after finishing safely with a large group of riders 13 seconds behind Stage 2 winner and new race leader Allan Davis, an Aussie who rides for the Belgium-based Quick Step team.
"It's one thing to hear about how strong somebody is, see their times on the track and realize how much potential they have," Armstrong said. "Then you see their true character when they're in the race. [Bobridge] is 19 years old racing against, uh, older guys. And he doesn't care. He lets it fly whenever he feels good, which is impressive.
"I was talking to him in the race the other day and I said to him, 'I think I know what you're going through.' We as a [U.S.] national team did the Tour DuPont in the early '90s, and you look around and see Gianni Bugno and Laurent Fignon and all these guys that you only read about in magazines, and all of a sudden you're going up a hill and listening to them breathing hard as well.
"He's got a lot of talent, and we'll see."
The youngest rider in the 133-man Tour Down Under field, Bobridge is Australia's answer to dual U.S. track and road cycling prospect -- and current Armstrong protégé -- Taylor Phinney. Bobridge has multiple junior national and world track titles on his résumé, was part of the Australian squad that finished fourth in team pursuit at the Beijing Olympics and this past week won both the road race and time trial at Australia's under-23 national road championships.
Bobridge has been riding competitively for five years and paid little attention to the sport before that. Thus, Armstrong is someone he knows more by reputation than observation.
This past week, race director Mike Turtur, an old family friend, arranged for Bobridge to go along with a couple of other Aussies on the first training ride Armstrong took after arriving here. That helped break down any psychic distance Bobridge might have felt, although he admitted Wednesday it has crossed his mind a few times that a little physical distance on the road probably wasn't a bad idea.
On the first climb in Tuesday's Stage 1, Bobridge saw another senior citizen of the peloton, superlative sprinter Robbie McEwen of Australia, accelerate out of the group to "stretch his legs," as Bobridge put it. Bobridge followed the 35-year-old, and briefly joined another attack late in the stage.
The forays did not go unnoticed by Armstrong, who made a point of chatting up Bobridge during a lull in the action and encouraged him to "never hold back," Bobridge recalled. Not that he needs much reinforcement.
"I don't like to finish a race feeling good -- I like to finish feeling like I've done something," he said.
Armstrong has spent considerable time training and socializing with Phinney and several other young riders in recent months. Founding an under-23 team with the ultra-gifted Phinney as its cornerstone was part of Armstrong's multi-faceted comeback.
Although Armstrong has joked about his steep learning curve with the latest slang, video games and other aspects of teen culture, make no mistake -- Armstrong is uniquely able to turn all stimuli into some kind of competitive advantage, and he is feeding off that young energy. Phinney and the developmental team are an investment in more ways than one.
Bobridge will be splitting his time between the road and track this season. He may not yet be ready to challenge elite riders in a major event, but he represents something Armstrong hasn't encountered in a long, long time -- someone who has never raced in his shadow.
At some point in 2009, it's very likely some other young rider with slightly more seasoning is going to be the wild card Armstrong didn't see coming, simply because he gets really fired up about beating a legend. Armstrong wouldn't like that, even if he were to lose to a worthy winner on a bad day. Even this week, in a rust-shedding race he's not trying to win, Armstrong is already filing away mental notes that may help him later.
Bobridge is racing for his national developmental team, sponsored in this event only by the University of South Australia. UniSA, as the team is known, has a float in the race parade in the form of a rider wearing an academic cap and gown. The budding Australian star is early in his education as a professional cyclist. On the other end of the age spectrum, Armstrong has gone back to school after a long break, but he clearly hasn't forgotten his study habits.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.