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By Anthony Tan
“If you didn’t see (Sir Donald) Bradman bat, Pelé score a goal or Muhammad Ali fight, this is your chance to see Lance Armstrong on a bike for free in our own backyard.”
Apart from a sycophantic journalist who likened the return of the world’s most popular bike rider to the professional peloton last January to the second coming of Christ, there were few more enthused about Armstrong’s presence in South Australia last January than the State Premier himself, Mike Rann.
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life … but not that,” Armstrong laughed in reply on his associations with Jesus. “He did a lot of things, but I don’t know that He rode.”
That press conference at the Adelaide Hilton – at around one-and-a-half hours long, perhaps the longest he’s ever endured – was “the most fun press conference I’ve done,” he said afterwards.
Even the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, popped in for a looky-loo one day to see what all the fuss was about.
And with a media presence of Tour de France proportions, daily swarms of fans who, when they caught a glimpse of their larger-than-life hero from Texas, abruptly went cataleptic as if – despite the sweltering 40-plus degree heat – cryogenically frozen, and the intangible aura of greatness that surrounds once-in-a-lifetime sporting stars like those Premier Rann spoke of, one couldn’t help feel a sense of a portcullis down.
On one side was Lance.
On the either side of the imaginary bars was the rest of the world. Or at the very least, the rest of the peloton, because for the rest of the week, no one seemed much interested in anything else, even if Allan Davis was a popular overall winner.
As Tiger Woods did last November when he came, saw and conquered the Australian Masters golf tournament (shortly before the life of the worlds most famous golf star was turned inside-out, upside-down), Armstrong flew into Oz via private jet. Flying from Hawaii, his Gulfstream touched down in Adelaide a few minutes before 5 p.m Wednesday. Out popped Lance and girlfriend Anna Hansen, who cradled their seven-month-old son Max in her arms.
“I feel good,” he told reporters in his first of what will surely be a plethora of interviews on Australian soil this week.
“A little tired because it’s been a long day, but physically, a little better than last year — based on the indications we got in training, based on training on the same roads before Tour Down Under last year. (My) condition’s better than last year, but we’ll see how the race unfolds.”There’s other guys that are big, big favorites here, and we’ll just try to play a part.”
Twelve months on, stronger, fitter, faster – will he, like Tiger, make such a statement at the Santos Tour Down Under?
It’s hard to say.
Armstrong is also here to remind Australians and the rest of the world of his Livestrong global cancer initiative, that since his return to racing after a 1,274-day absence and 27.5 million lives lost due to cancer, millions of lives are still being thrown away.
Many completely unnecessarily, he believes, if there was more money devoted to researching cures in a disease where just saying the name strikes fear down the spine of the toughest men.
So, in between speeches designed to ask, embolden and empower, visits to the cancer wards of hospitals, and moving and schmoozing with high-powered Australian politicians (or ‘pollies,’ in Aussie slang), the seven-time Tour winner will kick of his 2010 season with this eight-day race in the land down under.
Anthony Tan will be covering the Tour Down Under for an eighth time in 2010