By Kirsten Robbins
Lance Armstrong will line up to start his first European race in his comeback season at the 100th edition of Milano-Sanremo on Saturday, March 21. The seven-time Tour de France winner was previously known for being a heavy hitter amongst the top one-day race contenders during the '90s. According to Johan Bruyneel, Astana directeur, even with Armstrong his team ranks weak against the Classic specialists.
"We're not that strong for the Classics," Bruyneel said about his team built for Grand Tour success. "I think it is one of our weak points but at the same time when you focus on stage races, you can't be good everywhere. It's not necessarily a disadvantage, we can't have leaders for the tours and leader for the Classics because it is not only about the leaders, you have to build a team around them."
Glancing back in the history books, Armstrong became the youngest cyclist to win the world road championships in 1993 held in Oslo, Norway. He won the Clasica San Sebastian in 1995, Flèche Wallonne in 1996 and finished on the podium in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He scored victories in America's Thrift Drug Triple Crown Classic and USPRO championships earlier in his career. According to Bruyneel, Armstrong's previous feats will be tough to re-create after a three-year retirement.
"There are so many uncertainties throughout the year and we are constantly discovering, we really don't know," Bruyneel said about Armstrong's unpredictable form heading into the Classics and his main focus on the Giro d'Italia. "We're discovering certain feelings in the mountains, on the descents and in the time trials. I don't think we are going to know how far he can go yet."
Astana's Classic hopefuls include Lithuania's Tomas Vaitkus and Switzerland's Grégory Rast to contend the one-day races. "We have some good riders, especially for the Northern Classics," Bruyneel said. "In my opinion they will be able to be in the final of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. There is a lot less stress there because we don't have to deliver or always be at the front. Some times it works out better for us because we don't have the added stress."
Rast, a former Swiss national champion, placed 13th in last year's Tour of Flanders. His teammate Vaitkus was even better in sixth in 2007 and is remembered for his stage win at the Giro d'Italia. "In my opinion Rast was the second strongest guy in the Tour of Flanders last year, not based on the result but his performance. Maybe one day we could win a big race with a guy like that. But I have to admit that we are not the strongest team in the Classics," Bruyneel said.
Astana's Milano-Sanremo team will include Armstrong, Rast and Vaitkus along with Assan Bazayev, Maxim Iglinskiy, Dmitriy Muravyev, Yaroslav Popovych and Michael Schär.
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