Lance Armstrong made a low-key start at the Tour of the Gila on Wednesday, but said the race was good early preparation for the Tour de France.
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion, finished 22nd in the Tour of the Gila's opening stage, a 95-mile road race to Mogollon that was won by his RadioShack teammate and defending race champion Levi Leipheimer.
Some testing climbs, a time trial and a competitive field make the five-day race a good test as Armstrong, Leipheimer and teammate Jason McCartney prepare for the Tour of California and then the Tour de France.
Last year Armstrong used the race as his return event from a broken collarbone.
"It gives me some race stages," he said. "Plus, it's a big field. There's the altitude. There are a lot of pluses to being here."
Leipheimer broke away from a pack near the finish of the final steep ascent in the foothills of the Gila Mountains.
"I definitely had to suffer more," Leipheimer said of his stage-one win. "I haven't been at elevation much this year. I'm still hurting."
Because the elite Tour of California has been pushed back several weeks this year, the Tour of the Gila has drawn a strong field.
"We went faster at the end today than last year," Leipheimer said. "It was more of a traditional race, where the break got away and the pace continued to pick up."
Armstrong, who has trained near Aspen, Colorado, in recent weeks, said it wasn't too soon to start thinking about the Tour de France.
"It's still a long ways away. That's one way to look at it," Armstrong said. "You could also turn it around and say that we're about 80 days out. In some sense, that's not much. You've got to be light. You've got to be strong. You've got to climb well, time-trial well and bring a strong team."
Armstrong, Leipheimer and McCartney are racing in the kit of Mellow Johnny's - the name of Armstrong's cycle shop in Austin - under a rule that allows Pro Tour teams to send three riders to national level races.
Armstrong said he was completely over the intestinal virus that forced him to drop out of the Circuit Sarthe earlier this month.
"It was the worst stomach bug I've had, but it passed quick," he said.
© AFP 2010
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