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Veterans return, tested in Cali opener

2/14/2009

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As some of the fastest cyclists in the world negotiated the streets around the state capitol Saturday afternoon, legislators prepared to vote on a $41 billion budget designed to slap wet cement on California's crumbling economy. The budget crisis is so grave that state employees have been ordered to take two unpaid days off a month.

The Tour of California peloton, by contrast, featured several prominent riders who were going back to work after long furloughs, churning over a flat, 2.4-mile prologue time trial course in raw, gusty winds under lowering skies.

Kicking off a season with such a short, explosive effort can be somewhat of a shock to the system, as defending champion Levi Leipheimer explained.

"It's like having a defibrillator," said the veteran American, who finished in second place, two seconds shy of Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara's time of 4:32. Leipheimer then pantomimed the gesture of an emergency medical technician trying to resuscitate a patient's heart and said, "Clear!"

Leipheimer's Astana teammate Lance Armstrong appeared to be in excellent cardiac health for a 37-year-old. With decimal points rounded off the times as is customary, Armstrong wound up in 10th place, five seconds off Cancellara's pace. He is tied with younger speedsters Mark Cavendish, 23, the Team Columbia star from Great Britain, and Canada's Svein Tuft, 31, the world silver medalist who rides for Garmin-Slipstream.

This wasn't Armstrong's first race of the season -- he logged considerable mileage last month in the six-day-long Tour Down Under in Australia -- but it was his first time trial since July 2005, when he crushed his erstwhile rival Jan Ullrich on the second-to-last day of the Tour de France, sealing his seventh victory.

"It was a new sensation, because I haven't trained for efforts like that," said Armstrong, who won two Tour de France prologues in his prime. "This is the first time I got to go as hard as I could." His performance augurs well for Friday's 15-mile time trial that has been the decisive stage in previous editions of the race.

In a not-so-new sensation, Armstrong was tapped for drug testing, his 19th control since August 2008. (Taking Twitter to new levels of intimacy, he informed his followers that he was having trouble producing a sample.) And in a scene very reminiscent of past mania, the Astana team bus was mobbed by a crowd that began to converge three hours before Armstrong's 3:39 p.m. PT start time and swelled to 20 deep by the time he came back, climbing on cars, carrying each other piggyback and jostling for a glimpse of him.

"I was surprised [by the crowds] in Australia, and I'm surprised here," Armstrong said. "The people are excited, but I don't think they're as excited as I am."

Another rider back from a long layoff didn't fare as well. Floyd Landis, winner of the inaugural Tour of California in 2006, had trouble with an early hairpin turn and labored through the course, finishing 21 seconds behind Cancellara.

OUCH team director Mike Tamayo said Landis, racing just two weeks after his two-year doping suspension ended, was not feeling any ill effects from his crash on a training ride Thursday. "He's rusty, but now we have that rusty moment behind us," Tamayo said. "It was an exhilarating moment for all of us to have him racing his bike again."

Landis said he was "overwhelmed" by the warm reception he received from the large crowds at the start and finish line. "Usually I can block that kind of thing out," he told ESPN.com. "I'm not a prologue specialist, but I can do better than this. But this was a good day. It's tough to put into words. It meant a lot to me."

Saturday was a poignant day for Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar. Here in Sacramento a year ago, he went into the overall lead in this race, partly based on his third-place finish in the prologue a couple of days before. He had a fine ride this year, but couldn't quite shoulder his way onto the podium, coming in 14th, seven seconds back.

Farrar, a sprinter and classics specialist, also was racing for the first time this season. He moved to Belgium several years ago to immerse himself in that country's cycling culture, learned Flemish and French, and has shown himself to be one of the most adaptable young riders in the peloton. Last fall, he and his family had to adapt to one of the worst things that can befall a loved one when his father Ed, a doctor, was paralyzed from the chest down after being struck head-on by a car while riding his bike.

Ed Farrar is back home after an extensive period of rehabilitation, working out in a home gym and driving a specially equipped van. His son, who handles inquiries on the subject with grace, stayed in his hometown of Wenatchee, Wash., for much of the winter to lend support. "He's making amazing progress," Tyler Farrar said. "I go away to training camp and come back, and it's shocking how much better he's doing than when I left."

As Cancellara noted, any rider taking his first spin of the season in a prologue -- the full-throttle, turn-off-your-brain exercise that is cycling's equivalent of the 400-meter event in track -- is venturing a bit into uncharted territory no matter how in tune he is with his body. "You never know how good you really are," said the Swiss star of the Saxo Bank team. Saturday's foray adds a little more data to the mix for some of the most-watched men in the peloton.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.