Armstrong keeping up with race leaders

Updated: May 26, 2009, 4:44 PM ET
Associated Press

FRANCAVILLA AL MARE, Italy -- Lance Armstrong is back on schedule in his Tour de France preparations.

Two months ago, the seven-time Tour winner fell and broke his collarbone at a race in Spain, jeopardizing his entire comeback after three and a half years of retirement.

Now, in the third week of the Giro d'Italia, Armstrong is starting to keep up with the race leaders on the tough climbs.

"It's exactly what I hoped for," Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel told The Associated Press on Tuesday during the Giro's second rest day.

"I didn't hope for a great result in the Giro. I didn't expect him to be with the favorites all the time, but I hoped that he could be progressing or be close to the favorites in the last week and that's a little bit what's happening."

Armstrong sits 12th overall -- 11 minutes, 6 seconds behind race leader Denis Menchov of Russia -- but he is starting to ride better than several riders ahead of him, including teammate Levi Leipheimer.

Armstrong was riding with the race leaders up the final climb of Monday's grueling stage to Monte Petrano until he realized that Leipheimer -- who entered the stage third overall -- had dropped behind.

Armstrong slowed up and escorted Leipheimer to the finish, likely costing Armstrong several positions in the standings. Leipheimer dropped to sixth, 3:21 behind Menchov.

Bruyneel suggested Armstrong would be between fifth and seventh overall if he were riding for himself.

"That's actually a lot better than we expected," said Bruyneel, who directed Armstrong for each of his Tour victories, first with the U.S. Postal squad and then with the Discovery Channel team. "I would like to see if we can continue this progression, or at least stay at the same level."

After a short training ride with his teammates Tuesday, Armstrong again refused to speak with reporters.

"Back from an easy 1.5 hours on our rest day," Armstrong wrote on his Twitter feed. "Saw a few other teams out there. We're all glad to have a day off!"

Before the race began, Armstrong said his ambitions were to help Leipheimer and seek a stage victory.

Five stages remain, starting with the short but almost entirely uphill 52-mile leg to Blockhaus in the earthquake-hit Abruzzo region on Wednesday.

The last uphill finish is Friday at Mount Vesuvius, and the race ends Sunday with an 8.95-mile individual time trial in Rome.

"It's difficult to win a stage," Bruyneel said. "If the opportunity is there, [Armstrong] will definitely try, but there's a lot of other guys that want to win a stage, too."

The bigger question is how Armstrong will fare at the Tour, which begins July 4.

Bruyneel confirmed that Armstrong will not race between the Giro and Tour, choosing to recover at home in Texas and then train at altitude in Colorado. Armstrong's girlfriend Anna Hansen is expecting a baby in June.

"If you do the Giro, the main thing is to recover from it," Bruyneel said. "At the Tour you have to be fresh for the start and be able to ride strong in the third week."

Astana could present a three-pronged attack at the Tour with Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Leipheimer.

"If Lance is good, it will only make us stronger. Because it's very, very difficult to be a big favorite at the Tour de France and play everything for one guy," Bruyneel said. "If you do and something goes wrong, you're done."

Bruyneel is still waiting for Astana's sponsors in Kazakhstan to pay off two months of missed salaries before a UCI deadline Sunday.

"I just hope it gets fixed so that we can focus on bike racing," Bruyneel said. "We'll see."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press