American Lance Armstrong admitted he had to overcome some pre-race nerves as he completed the first stage of his comeback from retirement in Adelaide, Australia Sunday.
Australian Robbie McEwen, of the Katusha team, claimed the victory honours in the 51km inner city criterium which traditionally precedes the Tour Down Under here.
But all eyes were on the 37-year-old Texan who famously battled cancer in 1998 before going on to win a record seven yellow jerseys at the Tour de France between 1999-2005.
Although Armstrong’s official comeback will take place at the race’s first stage proper on Tuesday — the criterium here is not an International Cycling Union (UCI) sanctioned race — the American still courted plenty of attention.
An estimated crowd of over 130,000, according to organisers, turned out to watch proceedings, with crowd favourite McEwen stunning a strong Columbia team with a late surge at the finish line.
By that time Armstrong had dropped into safer realms near the back of the main bunch and afterwards admitted it had been a fun but nervous experience.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said the American, who is far more suited to stage racing than hectic criteriums where the threat of crashes is ever present. “There was a lot of anxiety today but it was good for a first day.”
Asked how he enjoyed racing back in the bunch, Armstrong added: “Yeah, it’s not my style but I enjoyed it. Honestly, I had fun today.”
Team Columbia appeared to be lining up one of their sprinters for a bunch finish to the race, held over 30 laps of a 1.7km circuit, until McEwen spoiled their plans.
The Belgium-based sprinter from Brisbane is a three-time winner of the Tour de France green jersey for the sprinter’s points competition and produced a cracking finish to score his first, albeit unofficial, victory for his new Russian team.
“This is our very first race together and I’ve already showed that we’re well organised,” said McEwen, who beat young Dutchman Wilem Stroetinga into second place at the finish. “It’s the start of the season and we’re lacking race condition but the guys did a great job keeping me up near the front, out of the wind and then it was just a case of positioning.”
Armstrong’s team manager at Astana, Johan Bruyneel, admitted it was a relief finally to see the American back racing after a three and a half year break.
“It’s a special day. There’s been all this talk about the comeback and now it’s finally a fact,” said the Belgian, who said here earlier he was shocked when Armstrong announced his intention to return last September. “This is an important moment. He’s finally a bike racer again. I could see he was really enjoying it.”
The first stage of the Tour Down Under is Tuesday’s 145km ride from Norwood to Mawson Lakes.
Armstrong has said, and Bruyneel confirmed Sunday, that he would be keen to test his racing condition on one of more challenging stages, such as stage two or five.
“It’s definitely not our ambition to win here,” added Bruyneel. “But what is sure is that if Lance feels good on a certain stage, he will want to test himself.”
For a full race report with photos and results, visit Cyclingnews.com.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2009