To hear Lance Armstrong tell it, he's racing this weekend's Leadville 100 mountain bike race because he enjoys his time in Colorado and it seems like a good challenge. This from a guy who runs marathons to raise funding and awareness for his Livestrong Foundation, and has said running a marathon is the hardest thing he's ever done.
Does he think he can win in Leadville on Saturday? Much attention has been paid to Armstrong, a newcomer to long-distance dirt racing, compared to five-time Leadville champion, former cross-country pro David Wiens.
"Dave Wiens is the odds-on favourite," Armstrong admitted. "I'll be happy to finish in the top five. I don't think I'm in it to win it, as they say. My training is more diverse these days, with cycling, running, and swimming. I'll have been in Colorado two weeks come race day, so I'm feeling adjusted to the altitude."
According to the humble defending champion, Armstrong may just be playing possum.
"I don't think Lance does anything on a lark. I think he'll be prepared," Wiens, 43, told the Associated Press. "I don't know how prepared Floyd was last year. What I'm saying is, if we were equally prepared, I just can't see where those guys wouldn't pummel me."
Armstrong, 36, raced a handful of National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) cross country races in 1999, mainly in support of first-time US national champion Travis Brown, 39, now a product developer for Trek Bicycles. Armstrong, fresh off his first Tour de France victory, finished sixth that day, ahead of Canada's Ryder Hesjedal, 27, who's representing Canada in Beijing and who rides for the Garmin-Chipotle team. The only other rider still actively racing from that event is Tinker Juarez, 47, who's shifted his efforts to 24-hour events.
BikeRadar asked Armstrong if it would be nice of Brown to reciprocate and help Armstrong beat Wiens.
"Is he racing?!" Armstrong asked, with a twinge of excitement in his voice. "The parts of this course that I've ridden are almost ideal for a team. There are a heck of a lot of flat sections that would be helpful to have a team, but that's not how this event is structured. You have to make some teammates on the road."
As of August 5, Brown was not listed on the official race roster, now nearing 1,100 strong.
Armstrong has raced his share of mountain and cyclo-cross events before, during and after his Tour-winning years. He famously avoided hitting fallen adversary Joseba Beloki in the 2003 Tour, cyclo-crossing his Trek across a framer's field before shouldering and remounting in time to join the descending peloton. Will all this running and dirt riding, BikeRadar asked, is cyclo-cross racing in Armstrong's future?
Armstrong 'cyclo-crossing' his way during the 2003 Tour:
"Based on my experience, cyclo-cross racing is short, very intense, and like a time-trial," he said. "training is so more specific. I wouldn't rule it out, but the best cyclo-crossers in the US would be lapping me! I don't think they run a whole lot during the races, but I suspect we'll be running or walking more in Leadville this weekend!"
Who says Armstrong can't cyclo-cross?
Armstrong takes on Santa Claus in 2004:
"I still maintain that marathons running is the hardest thing I've ever done, especially on the legs," he added. "Anaerobically it wasn't such a challenge this year, but running 26.2 miles takes its toll on the joints and ligaments.
Armstrong finishing 2008 Boston Marathon:
Armstrong added that he still plans on running the Chicago and New York City marathons this year.
A former professional triathlete in his teen years, Armstrong splits his saddle time 50/50 between dirt and road, and even during his preparations for Leadville he said he's continuing that regimen, while continuing to run, hike and work out in the gym. Clearly, the Texan is serious about staying fit, and doesn't seem to miss the six- to eight-hour days he used to spend in the saddle.
When asked who he thought might win the Beijing Olympic men's road race Saturday, Armstrong was upfront about his unfamiliarity with the course, just as he was for this past Tour de France, but realizes the Spanish team of Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Freire and 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador look mighty strong on paper.
"One-day races, especially the Olympics, are tough," he told BikeRadar. "Five-man teams make it harder. The air quality differences between Aspen, Colorado and Beijing are night and day."