Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is trying to make up for lost time after an intestinal virus forced him to pull out of the Circuit de la Sarthe at the beginning of this month. This week he is racing stateside at the SRAM Tour of the Gila and is hoping to gain fitness for upcoming targets like the Amgen Tour of California held in May and ultimately the Tour de France in July.
Armstrong is racing under his Austin-based bike shop name Mellow Johnny’s with his two RadioShack teammates Levi Leipheimer and Jason McCartney. With Leipheimer wearing the leader’s jersey after winning the stage one Mogollon Road Race, Armstrong and McCartney did the lion’s share of the work on the stage two Inner Loop Road Race, one of the windiest bike races in recent history.
“It’s probably a good thing,” Armstrong said. “I’m definitely missing race days and this is an opportunity to not only get some race days but do some work to compensate for all the things that I’ve missed. If you sit back and look at the year so far, between bad luck and illness, I’ve pulled out of a few races and now is the time to make up for that.
“People can talk about domestic or American races, but I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate,” Armstrong said. “The field is fast and American pros are strong. The other key thing here is that it’s an altitude race and there are a lot of guys that live at altitude so it’s not a big adjustment for them. Us lowlanders come up here and definitely pay the price for being at five, six or seven thousand feet and making efforts, it’s difficult.”
Armstrong pulled out of Milan-Sanremo at the end of March citing acute gastroenteritis. At the beginning of April, he went on to pull out of the Circuit de la Sarthe before the start of the second stage because of an intestinal virus.
Last year, he arrived to the start of the SRAM Tour of the Gila recovering from a broken collarbone and believes that this year the five-stage event is the best way to prepare for more important races down the road.
Armstrong finished 22nd in the opening stage won by his teammate Leipheimer. The 151-kilometre road race finished with a notoriously steep 10-kilometre ascent toward the small town of Mogollon.
“It’s only been a few days but yesterday was not a good day, I was off,” Armstrong said. “Today I felt a bit better and we will see about tomorrow, although I feel a little tired after today. We all know the main goal here so I just have to build that up step-by-step. This is important, California is important and whatever [race] we pick in June will be the most important when it comes to preparation and then the Tour.”
The Amgen Tour of California will mark the next phase in Armstrong preparation for the Tour de France held in July. The eight-day race is scheduled to begin on May 16 in Nevada City and travel southbound to Los Angeles for the conclusion on May 23.
The wind picks up at Gila
Stage two of the SRAM Tour of the Gila was won by Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home) followed by race leader Leipheimer, who place second. The pair took advantage of a gusty tail wind coming to the finish line and caught the sprint teams off-guard as both riders jumped out of the peloton in the closing kilometre.
“I was on the front and then all of a sudden the little guy attacked around and I said, ‘OK, that’s good, I’ll sit up now thank you very much’,” Armstrong said. “He’s strong and it’s in good time for Cali.”
The wind picked up in the early morning with gusts as fast as 100 kph sweeping through the peloton during the 128-kilometre road race. Armstrong and McCartney did much of the work to hold the field together over the final highway grade climb back toward the finishing town of Fort Bayard.
The pair received valuable help from Tom Peterson who was working in the interest of his DZ Nuts team-mates Dave Zabriskie and runner up in the overall classification Tom Danielson.
“It was definitely windy,” Armstrong said. “I do know that I’ve seen wind like that in a race. I guess we were lucky because we had a lot of time in the forest and a lot of protection and then after that we had a good tailwind and it was just the last 40 to 50 kilometres that were headwind and cross winds.”
Armstrong noted that if the wind continues gusting during tomorrow’s stage three 26-kilometre time trial, it could make for a dangerous individual effort. “Today you just stay at the front, you can sit back a little bit but there was nothing good in the back,” Armstrong said. “You gotta just stay out of trouble and just stay with your team and stay up front.
“It would be dangerous if it was [windy] tomorrow in the TT,” he added. “If it’s windy like this, which it could be, it will be two things: hard and dangerous. On the back the disc wheel is not a problem, I don’t think. But even a deep section wheel on the front, on the bars people will be riding on the outsides, I would suspect.”
Last year, Armstrong placed third in the time trial, over a minute behind Leipheimer’s winning time of 32:59. This time around he is hoping for a good showing. “I had hoped but yesterday was not a good indication so I don’t know what’s going on, today was a little better. I will wake up, warm up properly and do my best.”
Leipheimer went on to win the overall SRAM Tour of the Gila title ahead of Armstrong who placed second last year.