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Lance Armstrong is back; cycling comeback starts in Austraila

Australians cheer the seven-time Tour de France champion as he prepares to compete in the Tour Down Under on Tuesday. In Europe, some react negatively.

January 19, 2009|Diane Pucin

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA — The statement wasn't as absurd as it sounded. A journalist here, looking over the crowd that had gathered, said to Lance Armstrong, "It looks as if Jesus Christ is going to cycle."

"I've been called a lot of things in my life," Armstrong replied, "but not Jesus Christ. And I don't know that he rode, either. He can do a lot of things, apparently, but I don't know that he rode."

Armstrong is back, and with a vengeance.

The man who closed his unparalleled career in 2005 is back to the cycling peloton and spoke for 65 minutes in a wide-ranging news conference on everything from doping to impending fatherhood, from riding bicycles with presidents to wanting to ride with soon-to-be presidents (Barack Obama, Armstrong would like to hear from you), from surviving cancer to how he will attack the meandering roads of South Australia in this week's Tour Down Under. Armstrong is 37 now, still with an edge to him.

Taylor Phinney, the up-and-coming American cyclist who competed in his first Olympics in the Beijing Games, knows what this means.

"Lance likes to have a lot of fun training," Phinney, 18, said. "But when he needs to go fast, he goes fast and that's that."

In the years Armstrong has been away, cycling has become a sport teetering on a series of doping cases, as one cyclist after another admitted guilt or was found guilty, including 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, another American.

So it was unexpected when Armstrong, who battled doping suspicions and accusations partly because he seemed to win so effortlessly, announced last fall that he would return. Very few pro cyclists compete at the elite level in their late 30s, let alone after a 3 1/2 -year layoff.

Armstrong's plans include the Amgen Tour of California next month; the Giro d'Italia in May, considered the second-most-prestigious event on the calendar; and the Tour de France in July. His Astana team -- Armstrong says he is taking no salary -- is led by 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and 2008 Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer.

Armstrong's story is well known. After recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, he began devouring cycling's most revered event, the Tour de France, by, as he put it, training better, preparing better, being a better athlete, being a better survivor. Cancer patients worldwide grabbed on to Armstrong's story and cheered.

There were doubters though, especially in Europe. Armstrong was dominating a sport that was awash in doping issues and that would, after his retirement, be badly damaged by drug scandals, resonating most sharply in Germany.

"There is hostility in Germany against cycling," a German reporter said to Armstrong. "There's no television anymore; sponsors are gone; major races have vanished. What comment do you have when there are some not very happy with your comeback?"

As Tour Down Under officials shook their heads, Armstrong controlled the room.

"I understand part of it, what's happened," he said. "People have invested emotions into the athlete and into events and they feel betrayed. When you feel there's been a bad deal on your investment, you pull out. Like any financial arrangement or emotional arrangement, they're pulling out emotionally and financially.

"I'm not going to Germany and quite honestly I don't care if the Tour de France is going to Germany. I spoke to the head of the European broadcasting union, who is a German, and I said, 'I hate to tell you this, but I'm racing.' This is a reality. Certain countries and cultures are opposed to it, then I ride around Adelaide and there's a completely different opinion. Hot and cold. I'm prepared to ride through the hot ones and the cold ones, and I'm going to keep riding."

The embrace of Armstrong so far in Australia has been all warm. Teams were presented to fans Sunday night, a tradition where racers are seen without their racing helmets or their squinty scowls. They were introduced by veteran announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and among 133 competitors Armstrong was the sole cyclist accompanied by extra security, even though the only sounds were cheers.

Richard Banesborough, a 69-year-old retiree from Sydney, was pressed up against a barricade at a corner where he knew Armstrong would ride off after the introductions.

"I am a huge fan," Banesborough said. "I believe the sport will benefit from Armstrong's comeback. I think any fair person will say that Armstrong has never been proven to have done anything but win races. To say anything else would be wrong."

Mike Turtur, the Tour Down Under race director, said having Armstrong in the field has been nothing but beneficial.

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