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Armstrong assesses his form and his competitors’ strength at the Gila

With the Tour de France just nine weeks away, a windblown Lance Armstrong was candid about his condition at the SRAM Tour of the Gila. It’s not great, but it’s coming around, he said.

“Yesterday I did not have a good day; I was off,” Armstrong told VeloNews. “Today I felt better.”

Armstrong spent much of Thursday’s 80-mile road stage at or near the front of the peloton, both to protect his Mellow Johnny’s teammate, race leader Levi Leipheimer, and to stay out of trouble as the peloton was blasted with 55mph wind gusts.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen wind like that in a race,” Armstrong said. “You have to stay at the front, that’s it. You could sit back a little bit, but there’s nothing good at the back. You have to stay out of trouble, just stay with your team, just stay at the front.”

It was the second consecutive hard day of racing at the Tour of the Gila, following Wednesday’s summit finish that saw Armstrong dropped on the steep ramps of the final Mogollon climb, finishing 22nd, 1:46 behind Leipheimer — and also behind riders such as Chris Baldwin (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) and Floyd Landis (OUCH-Bahati Foundation.)

One year ago Armstrong came to Silver City, New Mexico, looking for race miles after a broken collarbone derailed his spring campaign. On his way to the Giro d’Italia, Armstrong also came to last year’s Gila with the hopes of registering the first win of his comeback season. That fell through however, when Fly V Australia’s Phil Zajicek came around Leipheimer and Armstrong in the final meters of the final stage — a summit finish atop the race’s signature Gila Monster climb.

In 2010 Armstrong finds himself in a somewhat similar situation — behind in his fitness and looking for race miles. Though not as severe as broken clavicle, Armstrong was sidelined by an intestinal virus earlier this month following a strong showing at the Tour of Flanders.

That illness — the worst stomach bug Armstrong said he’d ever battled — forced him to abandon the Circuit de la Sarthe and cancel his plans of racing the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Instead, Armstrong returned home to the U.S., where he is racing Gila in preparation of May’s Amgen Tour of California. He has not yet decided on his June Tour de France preparation race, either the Dauphiné Libéré or the Tour of Switzerland.

All eyes were on Armstrong on the final, steep slopes of Wednesday’s Mogollon climb, yet the seven-time Tour champ struggled and lost contact with the lead group, forfeiting any chance at contending for the general classification.

With Leipheimer in the race lead and ProTour teams limited to three-man teams per UCI rules, Armstrong had no choice Thursday but to put his face into the dangerous wind that left riders sandblasted and wind burnt.

“It’s probably a good thing,” Armstrong said about his time spent in the wind. “I’m definitely missing race days. So this is an opportunity not only for race days but also to do some work and compensate for the days that I’ve missed.  We can look back at the year so far, and just between bad luck and illnesses I’ve pulled out of a few races. Now is the time to make up for that.”

Armstrong also dismissed the notion that the national-level NRC stage race was easy, compared to ProTour races.

“People say what they want about this being [just] a domestic race… I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate,” he said. “This field is fast. American pros are strong. Another key thing here is that it’s at altitude. You have guys that live at altitude. It’s not a big adjustment for them, but us lowlanders come up here and we definitely pay the price.”

With three stages remaining, Armstrong’s chances of leaving Gila with a stage win are dwindling; remaining stages include Friday’s 16.1-mile out-and-back time trial, Saturday’s downtown criterium and Sunday’s Gila Monster summit finish.

Asked about his chances in the time trial, Armstrong was realistic. “I had hoped for a good performance (in the time trial), but yesterday was not a good indication,” he said. “Today was a little better. I’ll warm up properly and do my best, although I’ll probably be a little tired after today. We all know the main goal of the year, so we just have to build up to that, step by step. This race is important, California is important, and whatever we pick in June will be the most important, in terms of preparation. And then, the Tour.”

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