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By Jason Sumner
Any doubts about the seriousness of Lance Armstrong’s recently announced comeback were likely put to rest Sunday, as the recently un-retired seven-time Tour de France champion claimed his latest victory, pairing with two local Colorado pros to win the three-man division of the 12 Hours of Snowmass mountain bike race.
Armstrong, Len Zanni and Max Taam (Team Livestrong) completed 17 laps of the race’s twisting 7-mile circuit, finishing their last lap at 6:55 p.m. That was enough for a six-minute victory ahead of second-placed Team Beaver Creek, which included longtime mountain bike pros Jay Henry, Mike Kloser and Dave Wiens, the man who vanquished Armstrong back in August at the Leadville 100.
Afterwards Armstrong wasn’t willing to read too much into his latest triumph, but a win is a win.
“It’s hard to even compare the two,” said the Texan when asked what the result might mean as he looks ahead to an eventual return to the pro peloton and racing the Tour de France. “One is road, one is off-road. This a format that I’ve never done before. But nevertheless it’s similar in that you have a team and without these guys, I would not have been successful. I certainly wasn’t the strongest guy in the race and these two guys made up for that.”
In what amounted to his first public interview since announcing his return to top-level competitive cycling, Armstrong also talked more about why he decided to come back (and it’s not to win another Tour), and why the notion of old cycling (i.e. dirty) and new cycling (i.e. clean) angers him.
“The most important issue is taking the [fight against the] global epidemic of cancer to a bigger stage,” said Armstrong, adding that more details would be announced on September 24th. “The best way to do that is race the bike all over the world. So you are racing in Australia, South Africa, South America, Europe, America. That is the first priority.”
And how about winning another Tour?
“It would be a mistake to say that we are coming back to win an eighth Tour,” he continued. “I don’t need an eighth Tour … But I’m still healthy and fit enough to perhaps be competitive. I can’t make any guarantees. I’ve been off the bike for three-plus years and I’ll be 37 almost 38.”
Win or lose Armstrong affirmed that his team — be it Astana or some other yet-to-be-created entity — will follow the lead of “new” cycling.
“We will have a comprehensive anti-doping program that will leave now doubt if I am successful,” he said. “But I can not reiterate it enough. In 2009 nothing will change from 2001. I never cheated. I’m not going to cheat in ’01 and I’m not going to cheat in ’09. That’s not going to change. But we will be able to validate it. We couldn’t validate it in 2001.
“In 2001 and 2002 we had to try to prove a negative. They say you have something we can’t find or you’re sneakier or smarter than the other guys. That’s a very hard thing to work against. So it is a little silly to say that this generation is cleaner than that generation. Look at [2008 Tour de France champion] Carlos Sastre. He comes from my generation, too. Do people say that about him? I mean I read that on German TV they said that I was part of the old generation. Well what generation is Carlos Sastre from?”
That generation gap — be it real or imagined — will be put to the test next year in the European peloton. But for now Armstrong is focusing on having fun, and easing back into the form that made him arguably the world’s best and certainly most famous bike racer.
He didn’t decide to do the Snowmass race until last Tuesday when he was out on a training ride with Taam, 25, an Aspen local who’s had some modest success on the domestic road-racing circuit. Taam has been serving as Armstrong’s training partner and de-facto tour guide since Armstrong started spending an increased amount of time in the ritzy Colorado mountain town. (He reportedly closed on a house in the area last week.)
When Taam mentioned he was doing the Snowmass race and that his No. 3 partner was in limbo, Armstrong’s ears perked up.
“He wanted in right away,” recalled Taam, who first connected with the Tour champ after Armstrong called the local Aspen Trek dealer bike shop that sponsors the aspiring pro. “He was looking for someone to ride with and I was the lucky guy. He’s really been pushing me and he’s definitely not too old to come back. I think he’s just really psyched about racing again.”
And indeed, on the morning of the Snowmass event Armstrong made his intentions clear.
“He said point blank, ‘We’re in this to win this guys,’” said Zanni, who categorized himself as a B-level pro with a couple of kids. “If it had just been a bunch of local guys it would have been a different flavor, but it turned into a very interesting and cool experience.”
That was probably the understatement of the day. While Armstrong and Zanni were basically running even-up to Henry and Kloser on their respective laps, Taam was making gains on Wiens.
“Jay actually gave us the lead on the first lap, probably at least 30 seconds,” said Wiens, who beat Armstrong by nearly two minutes at Leadville. “Then Len and Mike basically came in together, and then I went out and Max punched my ticket for a couple minutes. Their lead just grew from there. I had a bad third lap and that’s when it ballooned to 10 about 10 minutes and it basically stayed there for the rest of race.”
Lap times for the top teams ranged from about 39 minutes to 45.
The Beaver Creek trio made a last ditch effort to cut into their deficit late in the day, sending Henry out ahead of Wiens in the order. But the short-shift tactic only slightly reduced Livestrong’s lead.
“And it basically cracked me,” admitted Henry a former NORBA-level mountain biker who once rode for the Specialized factory team. “I was feeling great before that. Lance and I rode the whole first lap together and he was about seven seconds behind the whole time. I’d attack and get a little gap but could never really drop him. I think he was just measuring me to see what the race was going to be like.”
In between laps, Armstrong passed his bike off to team mechanic Ben Coates, then retired to a rented hotel room that overlooked the race’s start/finish area. He said he split time between watching, “a little bit of football, doing little bit of sleeping. We also had bikes on rollers up there so we could warm up a little inside.”
As for food — always a critical element in endurance races — Armstrong called the day’s menu a “motley” mix.
“There were lots of nutella and banana sandwiches, Powerbars, Honey Stinger, cereal, and Max had a plate of rice and chicken,” he said. As for the racing itself, “the first half was fun, but the second half started to be not fun.”
Armstrong wasn’t willing too look to far ahead after the race, admitting he still had “a long way to go and a lot of stuff to figure out” before his run at an eighth Tour title or any other pro road title.
He also reaffirmed that Alberto Contador was in his mind “the best cyclist in the sport. That’s why he should have been in the Tour de France. Clearly [Astana has] the best team. Levi is the second strongest.”
But no matter what happens next year, what teams he is on, or how he is received by a likely more-skeptical European audience, Armstrong says the central mission is about fighting cancer.
“What is important is that we take the Livestrong message to all the countries in Europe and around the world,” he said. “We’ve had an impact in Texas. We’ve had an impact in the U.S. and I think we’ll have an impact around the world. If people can’t sit back and applaud that, I don’t know what they are going to applaud.”
Trio Men’s Results:
# Of Laps Bib Team Last Lap Finished
17 Livestrong 9/14/2008 6:55:07 PM
17 Team Beaver Creek 9/14/2008 7:01:46 PM
16 Rocky Mountain Racing 9/14/2008 6:55:06 PM
16 Summit Slayers 9/14/2008 6:58:14 PM
14 Basalt Bike and Ski Trio 9/14/2008 5:55:13 PM
14 Feedback Sports/Anna Power 9/14/2008 6:10:32 PM
13 Brian, Yan & Mike 9/14/2008 6:46:46 PM
12 Bike-N-Hike.com 9/14/2008 6:33:01 PM
11 Land + Shelter 9/14/2008 6:29:16 PM
11 Yard Sale 9/14/2008 6:35:56 PM
11 Road Rash 9/14/2008 6:53:24 PM
10 Ute City Cycles 9/14/2008 6:09:24 PM
10 Chee & Crack 9/14/2008 6:38:07 PM