Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

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September 15, 2008
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Tour de Comeback comes to Snowmass

SNOWMASS VILLAGE " It was a Lance Armstrong moment.

But the guy at the finish line Sunday night in Snowmass Village " clad in a yellow Team Livestrong jersey while camera flashes popped all around him " definitely wasn't the seven-time Tour de France champion.

Rather, it was Len Zanni, an unassuming 38-year-old resident of Carbondale known for his climbing prowess on a mountain bike.

And the great Armstrong? The man whose announcement last week to come out of retirement and chase a record eighth Tour de France made headlines around the globe? He stood off to the side of the finish-line scrum Sunday night while Zanni " one of his two Team Livestrong partners at the inaugural 12 Hours of Snowmass " stood for the cameras.

Talk about a dream teammate.

On a day when the biggest name in cycling turned an internationally obscure mountain-biking benefit race into a major event, Armstrong deferred credit for his team's win to two regular guys he's come to count among his friends and training partners since becoming a part-time Aspen resident.

"If it wasn't for these two guys, we wouldn't have been successful," said Armstrong, who teamed with Zanni and Max Taam, a 25-year-old ski patroller, to churn out 17 laps on the 7-mile technical course in just under 12 hours. "I was certainly not the strongest guy in the race.

"These two guys made up the difference on the team."

This was about the equivalent of Michael Jordan thanking his teammates for their passes after suiting up for a local 3-on-3 charity hoops tournament.

Still, when the announcement went out last week that Armstrong planned to race Sunday, some of the state's best mountain bikers couldn't resist the challenge to come compete at Snowmass.

"It was like a carrot being dangled out there," said Vail's Mike Kloser, a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and arguably the world's most decorated adventure racer.

Kloser quickly put together a three-man team of his own last week, calling on fellow Vail pro Jay Henry and Dave Wiens of Gunnison, the man who edged out Armstrong at last month's grueling Leadville Trail 100.

The Team Beaver Creek trio gave the winning team a good run, finishing just 6 minutes and 39 seconds off the winning pace.

Wiens, who halted his training regimen after the Leadville 100, said he was planning on spending Sunday watching the Broncos on his couch. But Kloser easily talked him out of it.

"Mike didn't ask me how fit I was, though," said Wiens, who lamented that he was the weakest link on his team. "As soon as Leadville was over, I quit doing intervals and all that. I'm playing town-league flag football right now.

"If this would have been a flag football game, we would have killed those guys, and I would have been MVP."

Armstrong said training for the 100 and racing against Wiens gave him the urge to return for a run at an eighth Tour de France. Sunday, however, he reiterated that his main reason for coming out of retirement is to raise global awareness of the cancer epidemic.

"The best way to do that is to race the bike all over the world," Armstrong said, who was wearing No. 7. "Race it in Australia, South Africa, South America, Europe, America. That is the first priority. Again, it's safe to say, I am coming back to win an eighth Tour, but I don't need an eighth Tour."

Armstrong also didn't need this race. But he opted to do it after Taam and Zanni's third teammate pulled out mid-week. Armstrong also told the media not to read too much into Sunday's win.

"It's hard to compare the two," he said when asked if his mountain biking would translate to the road. "This is a format that I've never done before. It's similar in the sense that you have a team. ... We've got a long ways to go. There's a lot of stuff to figure out."

Sunday's race was a benefit for the Aspen Youth Center and Extreme Sports Camp " two valley nonprofits that work with youth. With 190 riders in the field, organizers hoped to clear $25,000 in proceeds.

Of those riders, there was a large smattering of locals competing in a variety of classes " including the brave souls who raced by themselves, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The spectators who weren't working on race crews came to see Armstrong. When he wasn't on the course, the 36-year-old Texan " who turns 37 Thursday " retreated to a nearby hotel room where he filled up on fluids, food, napped, and even watched a little football.

But every time Armstrong re-emerged to warm up before heading out on another lap, there was plenty of commotion. Heads turned while he wheeled around in the grass field above the start area. Fans chased after him to snap photos and wish him well.

He also stopped to talk with some well-known spectators, including Woody Creek local John Oates " one half of the '80s hitmakers duo Hall and Oates " and Taylor Phinney, the 18-year-old Olympic cyclist from Boulder. Armstrong invited Phinney to Aspen to train with him for a few days.

"I think he recognizes I have some potential in this sport and he wants to take me under his wing," Phinney said. "There's everything to learn from Lance. Any chance to train with the king is cool with me."

Or ride a race with him, for that matter.

"I'm just real lucky," said Taam, when asked what it was like to compete with Armstrong.

"It's been really fun," added Zanni. "Just to get to know him a little bit. He's super fun, super friendly, he loves Aspen and he loves the riding here at Snowmass. He's excited to be back racing."


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The Aspen Times Updated Sep 15, 2008 11:30AM Published Sep 15, 2008 01:52AM Copyright 2008 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.