Page last updated at 18:52 GMT, Saturday, 17 January 2009

Armstrong cycle fever hits Down Under

Lance Armstrong training in Adelaide, January 2009
Lance Armstrong practices with his team-mates

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Adelaide, Australia

Adelaide has been invaded by a lycra-clad army of cycling enthusiasts, with the capital of South Australia feeling more like 'Planet Lance'.

More than three years after retiring from professional cycling, Lance Armstrong is taking part in the Tour Down Under, his much-anticipated comeback race.

In all, there are 133 riders here from 23 countries, but the focus is solely upon the 37-year-old Texan who retired in 2005 after securing his seventh victory in the Tour de France.

His face seems to be everywhere, from the arrivals hall at the airport to the side of trams gliding through the streets.

Tourism chiefs are promoting the tour as "Your Chance to See Lance".

Adelaide has not seen anything like it since the great Donald Bradman left his native New South Wales and decided to play his cricket for South Australia, and The Australian newspaper described him as a "one-man stimulus for the South Australian economy".

Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France in 1999
Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times

Rather like a visiting head of state, he received a personal welcome to the city by the premier of South Australia, while the hometown newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, has printed a special souvenir picture of him every day this week.

I suppose you could say that Australia's City of Churches is displaying an almost religious-style fervour.

At the pre-race press conference, one journalist asked him if he felt like Jesus Christ.

"I've been called a lot of things in my life," deadpanned Armstrong.

"I don't know if he rode either. He could do a lot of things, apparently, but I don't know if he rode."

Still, this could be the start of the great Armstrong revival, since he has his determined glare fixed on this year's Tour de France.

The man who survived testicular cancer 12 years ago hopes his return to racing will boost cancer awareness - that, he says, is his primary motivation.

But his competitive instincts have clearly been aroused.

I guarantee I will take every opportunity to be at the front of the race and to animate the race and be active.

Lance Armstrong

Though he does not think he will end up with the winner's jersey in the Tour Down Under - that would be unrealistic, he says - in six months time he may well be a world-beater again.

At the press conference, he said he would have a better sense of his fitness in April and May.

Having trained in Hawaii, Armstrong claims his fitness through November, December and January has been better than it was when he won his last Tour De France.

And this week, on his police-escorted training rides in the Adelaide Hills, he has left his Astana team-mates in their wake.

The pre-race talk is that he will try at least to dominate the Tour Down Under.

"I have been drinking beer and sitting on my ass for three years," he scoffed at that suggestion. "How could they think that?"

Then he struck a more serious note, and his competitive streak came to the fore.

"If the opportunity is there I will certainly take it. I guarantee I will take every opportunity to be at the front of the race and to animate the race and be active.

"No doubt. No bluffing and no hiding. If the race dictates that, and I feel good, I promise you I will attack. I just don't know whether I will be in a position to do that."

Passing years

As for the delicate matter of his age, he jokingly threatened to throw out reporters who were audacious enough to mention that he is three years shy of 40.

He admits to a little stiffness and soreness, but that his recovery rate and power were good.

Lance Armstrong
Armstrong says his fitness is as good as ever

Armstrong also has a specially-designed new bike, which has been emblazoned with two numbers: 27.5, signifying the 27.5 million people who have died of cancer since the 2005 Tour de France; and 1274 - the number of days which have passed since his last professional race.

Even if he were to come fifth in the Tour de France, he said, he would still have deemed his comeback a success if he managed to raise global awareness about cancer.

From a sporting perspective, he admitted there was a risk to his legacy. "I'm willing to take that risk," he said. "From a human perspective and from a cause perspective, I think it's well worth the sporting risk."

The Town Down Under starts on Tuesday, with its six stages taking in the bush, the outback and South Australia's Barossa Valley wine region.

But Armstrong returns to competitive action on Sunday evening in a race called the 50km criterium around a circuit in Adelaide's Rymill Park, where 100,000 spectators are expected.

Fittingly enough, for a man so dedicated to his cause, it is called the Cancer Council Classic.

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