MAWSON LAKES, AUSTRALIA — Not everybody knows Lance Armstrong.
Milton Checker, an 80-year-old sheep farmer whose 30 acres of land include Checker Hill, the highest climb of the first day of the Tour Down Under, said that until last week he had never heard of the cyclist who has set worldwide records and helped raise $250 million for cancer research.
"Now I've been hearing of him three times a day," said Checker, who had graciously allowed about 250 cars to park on his land, let hundreds of bike fans set up shop on his hillside and then watched the speeding peloton buzz past.
"Which one was Armstrong?" Checker said.
Armstrong was No. 11, wearing the aqua, yellow and white colors of his Kazakhstan-based team and laboring a little on a day during which the temperatures reached 100 degrees and Armstrong said he drank "15 or 20 bottles of liquid" while trying to stay hydrated.
The winner of the first stage was the man wearing No. 1, the race's defending champion, Germany's Andre Greipel. Greipel is a 26-year-old representing Team Columbia-High Road, the squad owned by Riverside native Bob Stapleton, and he out-sprinted Australian favorite Stuart O'Grady of Saxo Bank to finish first by a bike length.
Armstrong was near the back of the peloton, content to ride cautiously.
"I felt pretty good," Armstrong said. "It was hard to prepare for a day this hot but overall it was a pretty good effort."
This is the first competitive road race for Armstrong since he won a seventh consecutive Tour de France title in 2005.
"I'm very relieved to get this one out of the way," Armstrong said.
Earlier in the day he had pedaled up Checker Hill, tucked safely behind Astana teammate Jose Luis Rubiera. Armstrong's cheeks were puffed out from his heavy breathing and the sweat ran down his legs.
While Checker may not have heard of Armstrong, Australia's political elite was on hand to welcome the 37-year-old across the finish line in this town founded on technology.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and South Australia's premier, Mike Rann, stood under a sun umbrella outside the Astana team car.
After finishing the 87-mile first of six stages, Armstrong was greeted by Rudd and Rann and the three chatted about the race and national health care, Armstrong said.
The other riders squeezed past the crowd, heads down, happy to be free of media attention and eager to splash cold water on their heads.