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Lance feeds off young energy in peloton

1/21/2009
Lance Armstrong rode near the front of the main bunch and took part in two late breakaways during Stage 2 of the Tour Down Under. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

ADELAIDE, Australia -- It's a scene that probably will repeat itself a few times over the course of 2009: Lance Armstrong spinning alongside a rider nearly half his age, simultaneously exchanging pleasantries and taking his measure.

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.