By Greg Johnson in Adelaide, South Australia
Stuart O'Grady (Saxo Bank) has admitted to being a little off form heading into this week's Tour Down Under. The hometown hero, who has won the race on two occasions, will lead the Saxo Bank squad in this week's race.
"I am a little behind the eight ball from previous years. The season last year went a bit longer and with the Classics, the Tour de France and the Olympics and then coming back for the Sun Tour, the season was long and hard," said O'Grady. "I took a little bit more time off than usual. I have only been on the bike for a month. Hopefully I will be able to be competitive and be up there for sure, let's see what happens."
O'Grady, who hails from Australia's fifth largest town, has welcomed the presence of Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong. The focus on Armstrong has allowed O'Grady to focus on his own preparation, instead of being the usual centre of attention with the local media.
"It has been phenomenal having Lance come to Adelaide," he said. "Having him on the front of all of the newspapers has certainly taken the pressure off me. At the same time I don't think that anyone has any objections to it, everyone has a general interest in him coming back."
While O'Grady was cautious not to join those who believe Armstrong is in Adelaide to light the world on fire, he does believe the rider can still be a force in cycling. Armstrong has joked about possibly being dropped on Tuesday's opening ProTour stage, but O'Grady believes the peloton isn't going to shake off the rider.
"He is going to come here and be competitive. I can't see us dropping him on Willunga Hill. He is such a super freak athlete, you can't forget that. Even though he has been away for a few years, he is such a gifted athlete to have ever walked the planet. Obviously he has created a lot of hype and a lot of attention."
The Paris-Roubaix winner leads a team that includes big Jens Voigt, Nicki Sorensen and Matthew Goss. O'Grady was happy with the changes made to yesterday's Cancer Council Classic, which used the same roads as last year's closing stage.
"It was really fast. It is a really good circuit and with the hairpin taken out it made the circuit flow really well," he said.
O'Grady pointed to the Willunga stage as the race's most decisive for this year. "Last year was a hard race and with the big teams they were able to bring any break back," he said. "I am pretty happy with this course and it definitely gets a little harder each stage. With two times up Willunga Hill, it definitely will mean where there have been 20-25 blokes at the finish that it will be down to 5-10. Willunga is going to be a decisive stage."