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February 13, 2009

Ready to Ride: Lance Armstrong races back into cycling

SACRAMENTO -- Ready to race his bike and ever eager to raise awareness about cancer research, Lance Armstrong said that he was excited to be lining up with 135 others Saturday for the start of the nine-day Amgen Tour of California.

SACRAMENTO -- Ready to race his bike and ever eager to raise awareness about cancer research, Lance Armstrong said that he was excited to be lining up with 135 others Saturday for the start of the nine-day Amgen Tour of California.

"For me, it just clicked in my mind that maybe I would try this again," Armstrong said during a news conference Thursday at the Sheraton Grand, "just for fun."

The feeling is expected to be mutual. Huge crowds are expected throughout the race. Riders begin with a 2.4-mile individual race- against-the-clock prologue in Sacramento, head to the coast from Davis on Sunday and then begin a deliberate and challenging journey southward to San Diego. The stop in Modesto comes on Tuesday.

Though the field contains many of pro cycling's superstars, including Belgian strongman Tom Boonen, Swiss time-trial powerhouse Fabian Cancellera and new sprinting sensation Mark Cavendish of England, most of the attention is focused on Armstrong, who has little to prove in the sport he once practically owned.

From 1999, when he shocked the European cycling establishment by winning his first Tour de France after recovering from cancer, to 2005, when he rode into retirement with his seventh consecutive title, Armstrong became one of the greatest athletes in history and an inspiration to millions well behind the professional peloton.

When Armstrong announced in September that he was returning to competitive cycling after three years of running marathons, walking down red carpets and circling the globe on behalf of cancer research, it soon became apparent his comeback would pass through Sacramento. In fact, if his 37-year-old legs are anywhere close to the 32-year-old version, Armstrong will be considered one of the favorites to win the prologue, which begins on

the Capitol Mall and ends with a rip-roaring straightaway down L Street to the finish line at 11th Street in front of the Capitol dome.

A race of that distance is deceptive- ly rigorous, forcing the athletes to quickly get up to speed and hold it for five excruciating minutes. In his prime, that kind of effort played to Armstrong's strengths.

At Thursday's packed news conference, with flashbulbs going off every time Armstrong smiled or frowned or stretched, the new unretired champion insisted age was not an issue.

"Performance doesn't necessarily drop off in the late 30s. What does drop off is the mind," Armstrong said.

Then, as if his rivals needed to be warned that he means business once again, Armstrong added, "I feel strong. I have to say that at 37 I feel just as good as at 27."

What that means is anyone's guess. At 27, Armstrong was in the early stages of his comeback from cancer and there were few signs he would regain his prowess as a top one-day racer, let alone rebuild himself -- dropping body weight, improving his climbing and revamping his time trialing -- into the greatest stage racer of all time.

While the Amgen Tour of California field includes many of the finest riders in the world, there is no mistaking the star attraction. Nearly 1,000 media credentials have been issued, a significant jump from other years.

Armstrong, who has been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs during his career, had to deal with that issue during the news conference. He verbally sparred with one journalist who called him "the cancer in this sport" in an article.

While Armstrong arrived with heavy security and is mobbed wherever he goes, the contrast with other top names is noteworthy.

As Armstrong headed into his news conference to great fanfare, reigning Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre stood outside the ballroom in a team sweat suit, checking messages on his cell phone, all but unnoticed.

Next to him stood shaggy-haired Oscar Freire, three-time world champion and a huge, charismatic star in Europe. But on American soil, he is just another face in the crowd.

What's more, Cavendish, the young sprinting sensation whose talents could one day make him one of the sport's greatest champions, walked out of the Sheraton toward K Street without anyone recognizing him.

In contrast, Armstrong will be the talk of the town -- and the toast of the cycling world -- through the weekend and beyond.

"My impression is that having Lance Armstrong in this bicycle race is akin to the baseball fan being told Babe Ruth is going to be playing at Raley Field this weekend," said John McCasey, executive director of the Sacramento Sports Commission. "This was a big race from the get-go. But he really raises the bar way beyond our expectations. The adulation is just unbelievable. Everybody wants to get a touch, a picture. It's Lance, Lance, Lance."

Depending on the weather, organizers are expecting 75,000 or more spectators for the prologue, which begins at 1:30 p.m.

The event will last much longer, with a tent festival beginning at 11:30 a.m., as well as a period when the public will be allowed on the course.

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