American Lance Armstrong completed his official comeback from retirement with an impressive day of racing in the first stage of the Tour Down Under on Tuesday.
Germany's Andre Greipel, the winner of last year's race, where he also won four stages, took the first stage in a bunch sprint following 140km of racing between Norwood and Mawson Lakes.
It makes Team Columbia sprinter Greipel the overall race leader, with Australians Baden Cooke and Stuart O'Grady - second and third respectively on the stage - just behind him ahead of Wednesday's first real climbing test. Armstrong is lying back in 120th place.
The second stage, a 145km ride from Hahndorf to Stirling, features four laps of an undulating circuit. But on the evidence of Tuesday's opener, Armstrong should have no problems.
The Texan admitted before the stage he had some pre-race nerves, but as the peloton slowly ate into and digested a two-man escape he rode with ease at the front of the bunch.
On the only difficulty at Checker Hill, a 600m climb at an average gradient of 13.3 percent, Armstrong was among those setting an easy tempo up the climb.
"On steep little hills I felt pretty strong," said Armstrong. He added that the dry heat of south Australia had reminded him how tough racing can be.
"The course combined with the temperature in the 40s, it was tough," added Armstrong, who has hinted that a stage win, more than the overall victory, could be part of his plans.
"It's a dry heat, it affects performance a lot, it's no way to perform at a high level. I must have gone through 15-20 bottles [of liquids]."
He added: "I feel better, it's nice to get that [first race] out the way. I'm just going to take it day by day. I feel quite strong, but we'll see how the recovery is."
Inside the final 20km 19-year-old Australian Jack Bobridge of UniSA produced a valiant attempt at taking out the win before he was reeled in during the final four kilometres.
Greipel then surged ahead in the final few hundred metres to beat Cooke, riding for UniSA, and Saxo Bank rider O'Grady with relative ease.
The muscular German, known as the 'Gorilla', says however he harbours no ambitions to defend his title in a race that’s been toughened up by organisers.
"I think we were the strongest team today and we had a really good lead-out for the sprint," said Greipel. "It was a good start for the team. Tomorrow's a really hard stage, but we’ll try to defend the leader's jersey."
Australian veteran McEwen - who won the pre-race criterium – is uncertain to start for his Katusha team after suffering a nasty bump and gash on his right forearm, thanks to an overzealous fan who he said stuck out a "big camera" in a bid to snap some of the action.
Wednesday's second stage, and Saturday's hilly fifth stage appear the most likely to attract Armstrong if he really wants to test himself.
But the American added: "It's still too early to say [if I can do anything in the race], a big factor is the heat. You lose 20 guys every lap [Wednesday], I suspect. I'm still playing it conservative."
© AFP 2009
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