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CYCLING

Lance Armstrong draws a crowd, finishes 10th

He is pleased with his effort on a day when an estimated 100,000 show up for the Tour of California prologue.

February 15, 2009|Diane Pucin

SACRAMENTO — By the time the Amgen Tour of California began Saturday, as Glen Chadwick of Rock Racing rolled down the ramp for the start of the 2.4-mile prologue around California's state capitol building, crowds were lined 15-deep around the Astana team bus.

They would never see Lance Armstrong cross the finish line in 10th place or hear the race announcer Dave Towle shriek, "Lance Armstrong's hands are on the bike," as if Armstrong might have chosen to ride in the "Look, ma, no hands," fashion or, "Lance Armstrong is racing on your streets," as if he were going to ride on water.

But much of the crowd estimated by state police as 100,000 was here to see Armstrong make his return to U.S. road racing after a four-year retirement. They came to see the 37-year-old puff out his cheeks, hunch over his handlebars and ride.

Defending Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who rides for Team Saxo Bank, scorched the flat course to win the prologue in 4 minutes 32.90 seconds. Defending Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa and the Astana team was second in 4:34.11 with another American, Dave Zabriskie of Salt Lake City and the Garmin-Slipstream team, third in 4:35.55.

Armstrong finished a respectable 10th in 4:37.17 and said afterward that was just good enough. "I wanted to be in the top 10," he said, "so I'm happy with that."

Today's 107.6-mile first stage from Davis to Santa Rosa will include the first three climbs of the nine-day race and is predicted to be competed in cold, windy, rainy conditions.

But the rain that could have made the short prologue a dangerous skid-fest stayed mostly away. "The conditions weren't bad," said George Hincapie, who was one of four riders from the San Luis Obispo-based Columbia-Highroad team who finished in the top 11.

Armstrong wasn't the only prominent rider making a comeback.

Temecula's Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France the year after Armstrong retired, participated in his first road race since serving a two-year doping suspension that also cost him that French title. Riding second-to-last, Landis labored through the course, finishing 90th.

Italian Ivan Basso, who was runner-up to Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France, was nabbed in the Spanish doping investigation Operacion Puerto and also served a two-year suspension that ended last fall. Basso finished 66th.

The early leader was Australian Mark Renshaw of Columbia-Highroad, who posted a time of 4:36.96 as the 49th of 136 starters. That time held for over an hour until Norway's Thor Hushovd came in at 4:36.04. From there the lead kept changing hands. Zabriskie, who started 129th, came through and raised his arms when he saw his 4:35.55.

It was an almost anonymous moment, though, because it was Armstrong right behind and the noise built as a rumbling wave up L Street as he came through the final clicks of the course. Cancellara, who also won last year's prologue, was the 132nd starter followed by Basso, Australian Michael Rogers, Landis and Leipheimer.

Armstrong, who was randomly chosen for doping control -- the 19th time he has been tested this season -- applauded the crowd. "People are excited," he said, "but I don't think they're as excited as I am."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on the podium and joined the photo opportunity with Armstrong, Leipheimer and Cancellara.

There had been no prologue or time trial at the Tour Down Under and Armstrong said he had been eager for this chance to ride alone and fast. "It was a new sensation," Armstrong said. "This is the first time I got to go as hard as I can as fast as I can."

Another opportunity to do the same will come Friday during Stage 6 in Solvang with a 15-mile time trial. It is where Leipheimer predicts the race may be won.

"I've said all along that stage will be the key," he said. "But there's a lot of racing to come."

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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