Seven-time Tour winner talks to VeloNews before the Amgen Tour of California.
On Saturday Lance Armstrong returns to pro racing in America. Following the Tour Down Under in January — his first stage race since coming out of retirement — Armstrong returned home to Texas for a week before heading to Astana’s Santa Rosa team camp.
A few days before heading to California for the Amgen Tour, Armstrong spoke with VeloNews about his expectations for the race, his teammate and two-time race winner Levi Leipheimer, and his take on some of the other major teams in the race.
VeloNews: The Tour of California starts Saturday. How are you feeling?
Lance Armstrong: I feel pretty good. We got a nice bump out of (racing in Australia), in terms of conditioning and getting back into racing and getting that intensity. It was a hard trip home. Then I had a week at home, then training camp, which I felt good at. Then back home for a few days, being a dad between training camp and California.
But I feel good. The main goal (in California) is to get Levi the victory. And from what I saw at training camp, he’s riding very strong. I’m very impressed by how he doesn’t race, but he can train himself into race condition. Most people have to race themselves into race condition.
VN: What are your thoughts on the timing of the race? February is traditionally early for a major stage race, but the Amgen Tour does come after the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar.
LA: I wouldn’t say that it’s too early, but it is early. But it’s so important now for so many teams, especially all the American teams. You look and Levi and Astana, Columbia and (Garmin-)Slipstream, it’s very important for those teams. You could say with a race that big, wouldn’t it be great if it were in mid-April, where Tour de Georgia was, for example? Can you visualize California as a tune-up race for the Giro?
VN: When was the last time you raced in California?
LA: The Ojai Criterium, 2005.
VN: The what criterium?
LA: Ojai. I know this because somebody asked me this the other day. It doesn’t really equal this. But I’ve raced in a lot of these towns. I’ve raced in Northern Cal, I’ve raced in Visalia, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles. Used to do crits and circuit races in San Diego. The first time I ever rode Palomar Mountain was in 1987. It’s been 22 years since I did it for the first time. I’ve done it many times since then. It’s an epic climb, I should say it’s a real climb.
VN: What effect do you think Palomar (on the final stage) will have on the race? It’s (50) miles from the finish.
LA: You’ve got a long way to the finish. It depends how they race it. It depends who has the jersey and how strong that person’s team is in order to defend it on a tough climb. It depends on the weather, because it can get nasty. And the climb after, Cole Grade, is hard. So if people get tired from Palomar, Cole Grade is steep and hard. Then you start to get closer to the finish. The race is certainly not over until the finish line in Escondido.
VN: Who are the big threats, either individuals or teams, to Levi for the GC?
LA: Michael Rogers (of Columbia-Highroad) looked strong in Australia. The American teams are definitely going to stack it with their best time trialists and the guys who are riding the best right now. It’s pretty fair to say that the Tour of California comes down to the time trial. Just as an observer I would think that, but a guy who wants to win it like Levi also thinks that.
VN: So it’s the best TT out of the guys who can make it over the hills in the front group?
LA: Right. Obviously you’ve got to make it into Santa Cruz, you’ve got to make it over Palomar. But, you get the jersey, the morale, you get the strong team around him …
VN: What are you thoughts on racing with Floyd Landis again?
LA: I haven’t given it much thought outside of the things I’ve said: His suspension is up, and you have to welcome people back. He’s done his time. Just like we all get a speeding ticket and we pay our fine, or you do something worse and you serve time or whatever and you’re back into society. We have to be that way. People were critical of (what I said), because they feel like Floyd should confess. But that’s not a discussion that’s ever worth having because Floyd believes he’s innocent. And furthermore, a lot of people believe he’s innocent. And so Floyd Landis can’t confess just to appease the people that want a confession and a clearance. Life doesn’t work that way. In his heart of hearts, he believes he didn’t do anything. And in the reality of our times, he served his penalty.
VN: How about Saxo Bank? They’re bringing what looks to be a Tour de France squad.
LA: Fabian Cancellara — a classic example of what we just talked about. He’s strong enough to win the TT, and probably strong enough to suffer through the big hills. And you’ve got the Schleck brothers, you’ve got Stuey (O’Grady), you’ve got Jens Voigt. You’ve got a very strong team. Not an American sponsor any more, but a big partnership with Specialized. So obviously they’re getting plenty of pressure. There will be some racing.
VN: Sure hope so.
LA: Oh, hell yeah. There will be a lot of good racing.
VN: With so many big names thrown in together, people are not going to let each other go up the road just because it’s February.
LA: The guys I know are racing like it’s May.