SACRAMENTO Lance Armstrong no longer inspires fear in fellow competitors the way he did when he won seven consecutive Tour de France titles and earned millions of dollars a year.
Three years of retirement will do that.
Yet he remains a larger-than-life presence to cycling fans and an inspiration to millions of others, many of them fellow cancer survivors.
When Armstrong rolls into Sacramento on Sunday with the rest of the peloton on the first day of the Amgen Tour of California, many lining the streets will be hoping to see him most of them unconcerned that he no longer seems as fast or ferocious as he once was.
At last year's race, in the early stages of his comeback, he was by far the biggest draw. Fans surrounded his team bus, seeking a glimpse of the athlete they see as a transcendent sports figure.
"We were lucky enough to get a taste of how immense he is. You can say it was like being with the Beatles," said cycling announcer Dave Towle. "There's no question that when Lance shows up, the level of interest is tenfold."
When Armstrong warmed up for the prologue time trial, his bike propped up on a stationary trainer, the crowd grew to 20 deep. A block away, Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss racer likely to go down as one of the all-time greats, warmed up with a handful of onlookers. When Armstrong's bike was later stolen, it was global news.
This season, Armstrong's cycling campaign has not only been less provocative, it has been practically unproductive. A stomach bug forced him out of a couple of key one-day races in Europe; his results in others were less than stellar.
By contrast, Cancellara in April won two of the world's biggest one-day races the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix in stunning fashion.
Armstrong isn't even the most successful rider on his Radio Shack team this season. That honor goes to American Chris Horner, who at 38 won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco stage race in Spain in April and finished in the top 10 in two European spring races.
At the Tour of California, Armstrong isn't expected to contend for the overall title. "He's putting the finishing touches on what you would call the base the foundation training," said Towle, referring to the Tour de France in July.
Off the bike, things are apparently going better. Armstrong is expecting his fifth child, the second with girlfriend Anna Hansen, and he conveys his cancer-fighting message to millions. His Twitter messages have a major following; even his unborn child has a Twitter account with a few thousand followers.
Stage 1 on Sunday
Sunday's race will start in Nevada City and travel 105 miles to Sacramento on the first of eight days. It starts from Davis on Monday, San Francisco on Tuesday and then arrives in Modesto on Wednesday. The last of eight stages will be May 23 in West Lake, the headquarters of Amgen.
Armstrong has said all along that while he missed competing, and he wants to do well, he returned to the sport primarily to bring renewed attention to his cancer cause via the Live- strong foundation.
Many have found inspiration in Armstrong's struggle and his outreach including members of the Break Away From Cancer group in Modesto.
Working with Memorial Medical Center, the support group offers many classes including an art class that often draws 40 or more participants. A small group of survivor-students produced a poster commemorating the Amgen Tour of California's races in Modesto.
Done in collage style, it is based on an image of last year's finish, showing Thor Hushovd crossing the line with arms upraised. The six artists who contributed found inspiration in victory.
"It became metaphoric for (the survivors), seeing the victory and relating to it as a cancer survivor. Cancer survivors need people around them that crowd cheering them on," said Cheryl Casey of Memorial.
In the spotlight
They also found inspiration in Armstrong, said artist Sue Rossi a 10-year survivor.
"Of course he's an inspiration. He's a cancer survivor, No. 1, and he's gone on to do such great things in being a survivor," she said. "He's a huge inspiration to anybody who has gone through that.
"And it's a big deal to have Amgen come through Modesto. ... We tried to put in a lot of our local landmarks and personalize it to Modesto."
A close look reveals a Modesto filled with familiar faces of community leaders, doctors, racers and survivors. Armstrong's famous intensity can be found in his eyes in the background.
Whether Armstrong can recapture the racing dominance he once displayed remains to be seen. Either way, he dominates the spotlight whenever he shows up.
Wednesday, in the midst of a festival dedicated to bicycling and thousands of people lining the streets of Modesto to see the finish of the 121-mile race from San Jose, Armstrong's popularity will be on display. Whether he is leading the peloton or stuck in the midst of it as he was last year won't matter.
He'll still be the reason many came to see the race.
Assistant Managing Editor Mike Dunbar contributed to this report.