Road

Remember when? Armstrong in Oz, circa 2000

It’s been almost nine years since Lance Armstrong made a journey this far south. Following a second Tour de France title that surprised no one after his ’99 comeback victory a year earlier, the Texan decided to skip the world road championships, a title he’d precociously won as a second-year pro way back in 1993, in favor of claiming a scalp he’d never taken but very much desired: an Olympic gold medal.

By Anthony Tan

Longtime rivals Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong rest after the Olympic time trial in 2000.

Longtime rivals Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong rest after the Olympic time trial in 2000.

Photo: AFP (file)

It’s been almost nine years since Lance Armstrong made a journey this far south.

Following a second Tour de France title that surprised no one after his ’99 comeback victory a year earlier, the Texan decided to skip the world road championships, a title he’d precociously won as a second-year pro way back in 1993, in favor of claiming a scalp he’d never taken but very much desired: an Olympic gold medal.

On a hot and sticky Southern Hemisphere spring day in Sydney — Wednesday, September 27, 2000, to be precise — Armstrong pinned on a number in a 154-man field to tackle the challenging 239.4km Olympic road race course around Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.

It may have been late in the calendar, but he was still in good form.

Having raced little since his second Tour win, Armstrong was — and most likely, still is — a rider that didn’t need to compete consistently throughout the year like Erik Zabel used to, preferring to opt for specific training over racing and often when engaging in the latter, using those select events as “training races.”

However, the man who he always considered his biggest rival and runner-up in that year’s Tour, Jan Ullrich, appeared to be in better shape. Taking an early exit from the Vuelta a España despite being defending champion and lying fourth overall when he did so, much to the chagrin of the organizers, it nonetheless proved the perfect formula for the German powerhouse.

With two laps remaining, Ullrich attacked on the short, steep climb out of Bronte Beach — the preferred abode of Lachlan Murdoch, son of media magnate Rupert — and although the Olympics was in theory a nation-versus-nation affair, joining him for the ride were his then-Telekom teammates Andreas Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov. The trio was not seen again.

Three clicks from the finish and outside the Sydney Football Stadium, where those unfamiliar games (to Americans, at least) of cricket, rugby union and Australian Rules Football take pride of place on weekends, a discussion of sorts took place, before Ullrich’s companions were left trailing in his wake. Armstrong would finish thirteenth behind his good friend, Axel Merckx.

Redemption was at stake three days later in the 46.8km time trial.

An enthralling Armstrong-Ullrich tête-à-tête did eventuate, but it was another of Lance’s mates, Russian Viacheslav Ekimov, who came out a surprise winner, with Ullrich and Armstrong having to settle for second and third.

For a man who, had he come second in his battle with testicular cancer, would have died, it was a below-par performance. In his first co-written biography, “It’s Not About The Bike,” it was also revealed his marriage to Kristin was on tenterhooks in Sydney, even though it was two-and-a-half years later before they separated in February of 2003.

“I was pretty disappointed with my performance in Sydney,” Armstrong told the Sydney Morning Herald while in transit the Sunday he landed in Sydney, before arriving in Adelaide to face his 2009 season debut at this month’s Tour Down Under, the first stop on the ProTour calendar.

“Although I got bronze in the time trial, I expected to do better … I wanted to do better. It wasn’t an ideal run-up after the [2000] Tour … with the complicated crashes and things. But I never had great success in the Olympics because we put so much pressure on the Tour. So after that naturally the body dips down and the mind dips down.”

And now, with Vinokourov and Ullrich’s performances very much under suspicion, one would expect Lance to have mixed feelings about his return to Oz.

“Oh no, I was excited to come,” he told VeloNews at his first official press conference before last Sunday’s Cancer Council Classic criterium, where he finished comfortably in the bunch, placing 64th behind winner Robbie McEwen.

“I enjoyed my Olympic experience in Sydney, and the training camp before that in Brisbane. [The Australian] people were great. [Australian] people are fanatics for sport, so I was looking forward to coming.

“It helps when you have an event like this that has come a long ways in 10 years. This event is on the ProTour now, one of the major events in cycling, so I was excited to come here, irrespective of that.

“Didn’t even enter my mind,” Armstrong said of the circumstances surrounding his last visit to Australia, and whether it had any impact on his decision to return.

Just don’t think he’s forgotten about what happened nine years ago.