Lance Armstrong's glory short-lived


ADELAIDE, Australia -- Lance Armstrong finally made a mark on his final cycle race outside the United States, taking his turn at the front before finishing 75th Saturday in the Tour Down Under.

Spain's Franisco Ventoso won the fifth of six stages -- 82 miles from McLaren Vale to Willunga -- while Australia's Cameron Meyer, who came in 13th on the stage and on the same time as the winner, retained the tour leader's jersey.

"This is a massive victory for me but more important for the team," Ventoso said. "We can be calm for the rest of the year now we have won a race. It's the best way to start the year."

Meyer, of the U.S.-based Garmin Cervelo team, holds an 8-second lead over compatriot Matthew Goss of U.S. team HTC-Highroad ahead of Sunday's 56-mile final stage in downtown Adelaide.

"My team rode fantastically and in the end it was a perfect situation," Meyer said. "Obviously Goss picked up a few seconds, he closed he gap as did Michael Matthews, but at the end of the day the job was not to let them get the full 12 seconds back.

"It was well done, I have my fingers crossed."

Armstrong strove to set up a stage win for his Radio Shack teammate Robbie McEwen who was fourth on general classification after four stages but McEwen finished 63rd on the stage, 1 minute, 48 seconds behind Ventoso, to drop back to 35th overall.

Armstrong came in on the same time as McEwen and improved to 66th place out of 130 riders 5 minutes, 44 seconds off Meyer's overall lead.

But for a while on Saturday, Armstrong showed show of his old style and resilience, joining in a seven-man breakaway shortly after riders crested Old Willunga Hill on the first of two passes over the tour's longest and harshest climb.

The peleton didn't let the breakaway group stay away long on a day of highly tactical racing, but Armstrong's presence at the front of the field thrilled fans who lined the race route in the tens of thousands. Many carried signs and banners urging on Armstrong as he nears the final day of his final international race.

Responding to their encouragement, Armstrong gave them one last show. He said on his arrival in Australia he didn't intend to spend his farewell race sitting among the bunch and after taking a low-key role on the first four days of the tour, he stood out Saturday.

Two of his Radio Shack team members -- South African Robbie Hunter who was sixth and Belgian Ben Hermans who was ninth -- finished in the top 10 in the stage, but the team lost its chance of winning the tour as McEwen faded.

"I'm a little disappointed we couldn't keep Robbie up there and go for the win," Armstrong said. "That's the main thing on my mind."

Saturday's stage featured a number of bold attacks as teams with sprinters still in contention for the overall title sought to deny time bonuses available from intermediate sprints.

Eight riders broke away soon after the start and led by two minutes until the first long haul up Old Willunga when they came back rapidly to the peleton. The field became increasingly strung out as they ground toward the peak of the tour's steepest hill and several riders, among them sprint stars Tyler Farrar of the United States and Mark Cavendish of Britain, dropped away from the bunch.

Armstrong took the lead on the first descent into the township of Willunga and helped the breakaway open a 40-second lead before they were reclaimed by the peleton near the 63-mile mark.

Three riders, Ben Hermans and Australians Jack Bobridge and Richie Porte, broke away on the second slog to the summit of Old Willunga, claiming King of the Mountains points. They were then joined by a group of 18 riders including Ventoso, Meyer and Australians Michael Matthews and Goss, who finally dueled for the stage win.

The leading group was down to 18 riders with less than 2 miles to go and was being chased by a second group which included defending champion Andre Greipel of Germany, who was desperate to keep his tour chances alive. Greipel started the stage in fifth place overall and 15 seconds off the lead, but his 27th placing on Saturday dropped him back to eighth, 27 seconds behind Meyer and out of contention.

Ventoso surged to the finish line narrowly ahead of Matthews with Goss third.

"I'm a little bit frustrated because I probably should have won the sprint," said Goss, who still has a chance to win the tour on Sunday. He is 8 seconds behind Meyer while Laurens Ten Dam of the Netherlands is third, 10 seconds down on Meyer.

"I got boxed in on the barriers with about 200 meters to go and had to stop and go again. I'm not saying I would have won but if I didn't have to stop I could have been a lot closer."

Saturday's stage is the most richly picturesque of the tour and often the most decisive. Though Meyer and Goss are still in a position to vie for the overall win on Sunday, the tour lead has only changed hands on the last day once in its 13-year history.

Old Willunga Hill often makes or breaks winning hopes. The hill is beautiful but savage.

Mature eucalyptus trees arch over the roadway and below the peak long, panoramic views unfold across flatlands green with orderly vineyards to the southern coast and the ocean.

Thousands gather for the climbs, often camping overnight in tents or mobile homes to secure the prime viewing positions. The roadway is daubed with slogans exhorting individual riders or teams.