Lance Armstrong's much-hyped comeback continues on Saturday when the seven-time Tour de France champion tackles the Tour of California.
"Now I'm fresh. I feel as good now at age 37 as I did at age 27," Armstrong said Thursday at a press conference to promote the race. "It's not the body, it's the mind that drops off and says 'I've been doing this for 20 years, I don't want to do this any more.'"
The US cycling icon returned to racing in January after an absence of three and a half years, finishing 29th in the Tour Down Under in Australia.
His inclusion in the field - for his first major pro race in the United States since 2005 - has dramatically raised the profile of the 1,250km, nine-day race, as evidenced by the throng of reporters jammed into a hotel ballroom for the pre-race press conference featuring Armstrong on Thursday.
"I played in the NBA finals in 1993 and I never saw as many journalists as there are here today," remarked Kevin Johnson, a former National Basketball Association player who is now mayor of Sacramento.
But Armstrong said his main focus in California will be supporting Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, the two-time defending champion.
"The thing for me to keep in mind is that Levi is super-motivated and super-fit, which he confirmed to us at training camp when we saw him on the bike. So we just have to ride for him and hope he rides the time trial like he did last year. I think that's where the race will be determined."
Armstrong will be racing against one of his best friends, and his former loyal teammate George Hincapie (Columbia), who is among the favourites.
The 2009 edition of the Tour of California starts with a time-trial in Sacramento, the state capital in California's central valley on Saturday and ends on February 22 in Escondido, south of Los Angeles.
The field also includes 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre of Spain as well as 2006 Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso, who returned to the peloton in October after serving a two-year doping ban.
Sastre said he was looking forward to racing in the United States for the first time, although he has been battling a bout of flu. He added that Armstrong's presence would relieve any pressure on him.
"I respect him," Sastre said. "He has won the Tour de France seven times and he has been training in the winter. His return is his decision, and there will be a lot of focus on him - and that's good for me."
American Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for doping, makes his return to racing after serving a two-year ban. Landis has joined the modest OUCH team, named for the medical practice that performed the reconstructive surgery on the rider's hip that made his return to cycling possible.
The 33-year-old's preparations were disrupted by a training crash on Thursday, but he was still expected to start. Landis won the inaugural Tour of California in 2006, and went on to win the Tour de France that year before he tested positive for synthetic testosterone during the race.
Another rider saddling up in California trying to put doping controversy behind him is American Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton, a former teammate of Armstrong, was banned for two years after he became the first cyclist to be found guilty of blood doping, at the 2004 Tour of Spain.
Basso, now riding for the Liquigas team, has never tested positive but was banned after it was proved that he was linked to the infamous Operation Puerto doping scandal.
Armstrong, who says the goal of his comeback is not only to test himself on the road but also to promote cancer awareness globally, can expect a warm welcome from most cycling fans in California. He said he knows that might not be the case when he tackles the Giro D'Italia and the Tour de France later this year.
"I'm not too worried about it. We'd all like to ride down the road and be loved by everybody, but that's just not the case."
© AFP 2009
For complete Tour of California coverage, visit Cyclingnews.com.