Armstrong completes first stage at Tour Down Under |

Armstrong completes first stage at Tour Down Under

Steve McMorran
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, third from left, of the U.S. signs his autographs for fans before the start of Tour Down Under cycling race in Adelaide, Australia Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Aman Sharma)

ADELAIDE, Australia ” Lance Armstrong contended with fierce heat and a strong wind in his first road race in three years Tuesday, finishing in the back of the pack in the first stage of the Tour Down Under.

Temperatures soared to 102 degrees as the field of 33 riders raced through undulating hill country in rural South Australia.

“That was tough, and this is the day they said is going to be the easy day,” Armstrong said. “But all-in-all, on the little steep hills that we had, I felt pretty strong.

“(I finished) right at the back. When I get to those bunch sprints I get out of the way, let those big guys do their thing and hope to keep the rubber side down.”

Defending tour champion Andre Greipel of Germany won the stage, 86 miles from Norwood to Mawson Lakes north of Adelaide, in a bunch sprint.

“I feel awesome,” Greipel said. “It was hot today and everyone had to suffer, but today was really great.”

Roughly 88,0000 spectators lined the streets of small towns or stood outside remote farmhouses to cheer as Armstrong passed.

The six-stage ProTour race ends Sunday.

The 37-year-old Armstrong, a testicular cancer survivor, made his return to professional cycling to help raise awareness of the disease.

“I feel better,” he said. “It’s nice to get one under way and tomorrow’s another hard day. I want to take it day by day but I think the early indications are that I feel pretty good, pretty strong.”

The seven-time Tour de France winner was immediately greeted at the finish line by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who spoke with him for more than 15 minutes.

Olivier Kaisen of the Belgian Silence Lotto team and Andoni Lafuente of Spain’s Euskaltel Euskadi opened margins of up to six minutes, 30 seconds over the bunch that included Armstrong.

Australian Jack Bobridge set out to bridge the gap to the pair, catching then passing them 13 miles from the finish. He briefly opened a lead of 50 seconds with about 7.5 miles to go but gradually fell back into the pack.

Riders from Greipel’s Team Columbia took charge a mass dash to the finish, allowing the powerful German rider to outsprint his rivals.

Australian Robbie McEwen, who won the tour criterium warmup Sunday, was taken to a hospital after the race for treatment after sustaining a gash on his elbow in a collision.


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