Still great or too late? Armstrong questions remain
By Talek Harris, AFP
As Lance Armstrong flew out of Australia on a private jet, the big question was left hanging in the Adelaide air: can he really win the Tour de France again?
The Texan, 38, was in better shape than in last year's Tour Down Under when he returned after three-and-a-half years in retirement.
He is apparently happy with new team RadioShack and his 25th-place finish this year is four places better than in 2009.
Armstrong's form will not trouble his great rival, Tour de France champion and early favourite Alberto Contador, but the American believes the dream of an eighth Tour de France is alive.
"It's something I think would be possible," Armstrong said. "It's going to be the hardest one to win. The competition is better than it ever has been before.
"I think I can win the Tour again. I might be a fool to think that but I'm going to go down my foolish way and find out."
Armstrong only made two notable breaks in Australia, one during a 50-kilometre (31-mile) warm-up and a doomed foray in the latter part of stage four. His best finish was 30th on day three.
He stresses that it is far too early to make predictions for July, when the three-week Tour de France, a race he won a record seven times, rolls into action.
"Not much can be taken from here in terms of what happens in the summer, in fact nothing," he said.
Armstrong, who finished third in last year's Tour de France, will compete against riders a decade his junior - Contador is 27 - as he bids to break Belgian Firmin Lambot's 88-year-old record in winning the Tour aged 36 in 1922.
However, he has made a habit of silencing doubters after surviving testicular cancer to win one of sport's most gruelling events, not just once but seven times, and in consecutive years.
RadioShack team boss Johan Bruyneel, who masterminded each of those victories, sees positive signs in a man he knows so well that he sometimes finishes his sentences.
"Lance is good. He's a lot different than last year. Physically his form is a lot better, he feels good in the bunch and he feels good in the team so that's three things that are better than last year," Bruyneel said.
He added that Armstrong is carrying less unnecessary muscle than last year and is more comfortable on the bike after adjusting his riding position.
Dave Brailsford, principal of Britain's Team Sky, describes Armstrong as the "benchmark" and warns it would be a mistake to write off his chances.
"He's definitely got it in him for another Tour de France and being right up there, there's no doubt about it," Brailsford told AFP.
"Whether he can win it or not, time will tell. You can't say that he will but you certainly can't say that he can't. As long as you say that Lance Armstrong can't, then he's in with a chance."
Armstrong, a popular figure in Adelaide, has given himself only another two seasons to pull off one of the great sporting comebacks.
"I don't want to say I'm going to win an eighth Tour, but I will tell you that I expect to be better than 2009," he said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do it."
Armstrong hits the beers Down Under
A relaxed Lance Armstrong swigged beer with his new team-mates on Sunday after a successful hit-out at the Tour Down Under, their first race together.
Armstrong finished the six-stage race around Adelaide in 25th place, a slight improvement on last year's 29th as he gears up for his attempt on an eighth Tour de France title in July.
"Having a beer with Team RadioShack," he tweeted. "Good week here at Tour Down Under."
Armstrong joined the new RadioShack outfit from Astana, moving with team boss Johan Bruyneel who masterminded all of his record seven Tour de France victories between 1999 and 2005. Bruyneel said Armstrong was in better condition than last year, when he returned from a three-and-a-half-year retirement, and also happier with his new team.
Armstrong famously fell out with Astana team-mate Alberto Contador last season in a feud that came to the boil during the Tour de France, when he placed third behind the Spaniard.
Evans buoyed by strong Tour showing
Australia's world champion Cadel Evans on Sunday targeted "unfinished business" in the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France after a surprise sixth place in the Tour Down Under.
Evans, a two-time runner-up in France, had not expected to figure strongly in Adelaide but he shot up the standings with a third-place finish in searing heat on day three and a daring break on stage five.
"I didn't come here with any expectations because putting pressure on yourself to perform when you haven't done the preparation isn't healthy," he said. "Hopefully it's a sign of things to come."
Evans finished behind German winner Andre Greipel but ahead of Tour of Spain title-holder Alejandro Valverde, who is appealing a doping conviction, and Tour de France champions Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pereiro.
He said he was gearing his season around May's Giro, where he briefly wore the pink leader's jersey during his last appearance in 2002, and another tilt at the Tour de France in July.
"There's unfinished business at the Giro and Tour (de France) for me, and that's been years of culminating and whetting my appetite," he said.
Evans appeared here with new team BMC and as the first Australian to wear the road race world champion's distinctive "rainbow" jersey.
"I didn't know what effect the rainbow jersey had on people within cycling, because I'd never had one," he said. "It really does have a pretty amazing effect. It certainly stands out in the peloton. I just want to honour the rainbow jersey for what it is."
However, he played down his chances of defending the title in October, when the world championships head to Melbourne, saying the course did not fit well with his riding style.
"It's a big ask. It's not a course that suits me well enough to gear my whole year around," Evans said.
© AFP 2010
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