Adelaide: Lance Armstrong provided an early insight into his intentions of winning an eighth Tour de France this year with a strong showing in the Tour Down Under criterium on Sunday.
The 38-year-old American, commencing his second season back from retirement, faded to finish in the middle of the pack, but not before leaving a big impression on the 108,000 people who lined the city streets of Adelaide.
A year ago, Armstrong was content to stay in the peloton but the Texan played a more prominent role this time, leading a group of five riders, including former Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro, on a breakaway.
The group took turns leading the race for nine laps of the looping circuit before two riders fell off, allowing the main bunch to catch up as the specialist sprinters fought out the finish.
“I felt like I tested them a little bit, I felt better than last year and certainly more comfortable in the race,” Armstrong told reporters. “I’ve been training hard and training with some intensity, so I feel swell.
“Everybody was completely going for it, no talking and only a little bit of looking around after the corners to see how close they were.
“Some guys started to taper off at the end but that’s to be expected, we get out there and you don’t expect to be out there that long.”
Armstrong finished third behind his Astana team mate Alberto Contador in last year’s Tour de France, his first since his retirement following his seventh win in 2005, but is now heading his own Radioshack team and already looking stronger than last season.
“That’s one thing I’d like to try to do more this year, is be at a higher level for more of the year,” he said.
“So obviously the Tour (de France) is the main goal but if I can have some condition throughout the spring and early summer, that at least you’re knocking on the door of victory sometimes.”
Armstrong eventually finished 62nd of the 131 riders who started Sunday’s 51-kilometre race, which is not counted as part of the official six-day Tour Down Under, starting on Tuesday.
New Zealand’s Greg Henderson won in a sprint finish ahead of his Australian team mate Chris Sutton and Germany’s Andre Greipel, the 2008 Tour Down Under winner, was third.
Henderson and Sutton are part of the powerful new British professional team Sky, which was created last season but was having its first race on the UCI ProTour.
“We were joking about winning today and putting ourselves out there on the map for the new sponsor,” Henderson said.
“It does not get any better than that. They are an unbelievable team, I dont think I have ever been on a lead out that was as fast as that.
“In the end my job was pretty easy, I just followed Chris Sutton and the rest of the fellas. Wow what a feeling.”