- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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ADELAIDE, Australia -- With the 2009 Tour Down Under in the books, here are a few observations and conclusions about the first gala event of the cycling season and Lance Armstrong's first roll down the red carpet in his comeback year.
What do we know that we didn't know a week ago?
Nothing that we didn't suspect. Armstrong was one of the fittest riders here, but that stature is qualified by a few factors.
First, unlike most top riders, Armstrong has had the luxury of doing nothing but extremely structured training for the past four or five months. Second, although the course and the hot, windy summer weather Down Under proved to be more challenging than Armstrong expected, it's still difficult to gauge his true level against that of his peers at this point on this terrain. Third, he came in saying he'd race with deliberate restraint, which he appeared to do.
"I'd say I'm on track, if not ahead of schedule," Armstrong said. He said he needs to lose weight and fine-tune, but his base conditioning is where he wants it to be so he can peak in May for the Tour of Italy.
In a television moment, Armstrong, who earlier had said he would "stay out of the way" in Sunday's Stage 6, helped drive the peloton in the penultimate circuit and eventually bridged the gap to a small breakaway group that included Garmin-Slipstream's Ryder Hesjedal of Canada. The peloton caught the break soon afterward, and a bunch sprint followed.
"You have to try to do something," a crestfallen Hesjedal, who did yeoman's work in the break, said of the doomed effort to stave off another sprint finish. "We could have used that reinforcement earlier."
Said Armstrong: "I actually felt the best today out of the entire week, so when you feel good, you have good legs, you gotta go for it, don't you?"
This relatively low-key race gave Armstrong more time than he will have later on to devote directly to his foundation's campaign for global cancer awareness and breaking down stigmas about the disease.
Armstrong was an irresistible drawing card for elected officials, including Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who made an appearance at the race and visited Armstrong privately at the team hotel afterward.
Australian officials made numerous announcements during the race concerning earmarking of funds for cancer research and treatment facilities.
A sizable number of sportswriters attended the by-invitation campaign launch on the race's off day. Afterward, one veteran European writer said, "Until today, I wasn't sure this was sincere, or real. Now I'm sure it is." The challenge going forward for Armstrong will be to keep winning that kind of confidence in his charitable efforts even from people who may cast a more skeptical eye on his athletic endeavors.
West Coast offense
Many have dismissed the idea that Armstrong would actually work for another Astana rider in a major race. Sunday, he insisted that unfamiliar scenario will materialize next month, when he said he intends to work for two-time defending Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer.
Armstrong headed home to Texas immediately after the race and will attend an Astana training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif., from Feb. 1-10 ahead of the Feb. 14-22 race.
"Our main goal is to get Levi the victory," Armstrong said. "Personally, it'll be good to do a couple of time trials, but outside of that, I'm content to be a domestique for Levi and get a win for the team."
None of the road stages in the nine-day race is a guaranteed win for a climber, Armstrong noted. "There are hard mountains, but they're not close to the finish," he said. "You'll have to look for breakaways, be aggressive. You don't want to let it come down to the time trial, because there are a lot of strong time trialists there, especially on the American teams.
"It's healthier for me mentally to go in as a domestique and not put too much pressure on myself."
If this sounds uncharacteristically cautious, consider the upside. Armstrong can narrow his focus, work at regaining his edge in the grueling discipline he used to dominate at the Tour de France, and still not risk trying to win the kind of road stages that aren't really his forte anyway. He'll also put money in the bank with Leipheimer, who doubtlessly will return the favor at some critical point in a Grand Tour.
Armstrong was quizzed briefly last week about the comeback of his former teammate Floyd Landis, who will race in the Tour of California after serving a two-plus-year doping suspension, which Landis fought hard to overturn.
Armstrong began with a standard response, saying Landis had served his time and was entitled to go back to work, but then added this comment: "Sometimes I get frustrated when people pooh-pooh [Landis'] return, and you're going to stand up and cheer when David Millar returns? It's the same thing." He finished by telling reporters that many people were unconvinced of Landis' guilt, although he didn't venture a personal opinion.
It's worth remembering Millar made his comeback at the start of the 2006 Tour de France -- the first Tour of the first post-Armstrong era -- with the Operacion Puerto doping scandal exploding around him. It was not a hospitable environment for a former star who had confessed to using EPO. There was little or no cheering from the press box, where some members of the British media, in particular, were openly jaundiced about their once-favorite son's relaunch.
When contacted, Millar said he wasn't perturbed by Armstrong's reference to him, but did disagree slightly. "I think it's two completely different situations," he said from his training base with the Garmin-Slipstream team in Girona, Spain. "There's a big difference between serving time because you've accepted what you did and serving time feeling you've been wrongly punished."
Oi, oi, oi
The impressive performance of the Aussie home contingent here, from veterans such as Allan Davis, Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen to young, relative unknowns on the world scene such as Jack Bobridge and the Meyer brothers, Cameron and Travis, raised the question of when an Australian group might sponsor a team in the Pro Tour.
Benjamin Fitzmaurice said they're working on it. He's an attorney and the managing director of Australian Road Cycling, which is working with sporting, corporate and governmental entities to try to put together an Australia-based Pro Continental-level team for 2010 and bid for a Pro Tour team in 2011. Fitzmaurice said the effort has been slowed by the economic slump in Australia but is still moving forward.
Taking a wider view, the deep field and big crowds for this race this year are further proof that cycling's center of gravity is shifting. Historically, the sport didn't even clear its throat in Europe until early March. Now, top riders are spending big chunks of time in Australia and North America before they even hit the Old World, and the last couple of months of the season have dwindled in importance.
Fitzmaurice and a camera crew were putting together a tech video about Armstrong's bike when they stumbled on the cryptic inscription "FSU2009" on the bottom bracket of Armstrong's bike and inquired about it. Astana staff and a Trek bicycle representative treated it as a mystery they were not allowed to reveal, and Armstrong himself would say only that the code meant something "personal."
We won't take the bait, but we would point out that creating this guessing game could distract from the other message Armstrong has chosen to display on his bike: 27.5, the number (in millions) of people who died of cancer worldwide during the 1,274 days between the time he retired and the time he came back.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
With the 2009 Tour Down Under in the books, here are a few observations and conclusions about Lance Armstrong's first roll down the red carpet in his comeback year.