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Armstrong feeling fresh for Tour of California

THREE weeks after making his comeback, 37-year-old Lance Armstrong is ready to take on a field billed as the strongest assembled in the United States for the Tour of California.

The seven-times Tour de France winner, who quit professional cycling after the 2005 Tour but announced late last year he was returning to competition, will represent the Astana team when the race starts tomorrow.

"I have had two breaks from the sport, one more unfortunate than the other," cancer survivor Armstrong told a news conference yesterday. "But now I'm fresh. I feel as good now at age 37 as I did at age 27.

"It's not the body, it's the mind that drops off and says: 'I've been doing this for 20 years, I don't want to do this any more.'"

American Armstrong returned to cycling in late January with a 29th place finish at the Tour Down Under in Australia. The Tour of California, which will feature 17 teams of eight riders, will mark his first North American pro race since 2005.

One of the greatest riders of all time, Armstrong is gearing up for this year's Tour of Italy and Tour de France and says he will be competing in the California to support American team mate Levi Leipheimer, the twice defending champion.

"The thing for me to keep in mind is that Levi is super-motivated and super-fit, which he confirmed to us at training camp when we saw him on the bike," Armstrong added.

"So we just have to ride for him and hope he rides the time trial (stage six) like he did last year. I think that's where the race will be determined."


The Tour of California field bristles with 11 former world champions and 17 Tour de France stage winners, including 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre of Spain and 2006 Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso.

When asked about the prospect of competing against Armstrong, Sastre replied: "I look forward to racing in the United States for the first time. I respect him.

"He's won the Tour de France seven times and he's been training in the winter. His return is his decision and there will be a lot of focus on him, and that's good for me."

American Floyd Landis, who has just completed a two-year doping ban, will also command a share of the spotlight but his race preparation was jolted on Thursday when he crashed during a training ride.

Although he suffered extensive bruises, Landis was still expected to compete in the Tour of California, team officials said.

The inaugural Tour of California champion in 2006, Landis went on to win that year's Tour de France before being stripped of his title after failing a dope test.

The 2009 Tour of California is a 750-mile, nine-day race which starts in Sacramento and ends on Feb. 22 in Escondido, California. This year's race will be one day longer and about 160-kilometres longer than the 2008 edition.


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