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Armstrong rides safe on return

LANCE Armstrong made a cautious return to professional cycling yesterday, finishing 64th among 133 riders in a 51-kilometer criterium in Adelaide.

More than 138,000 people turned out to see Armstrong end a three-year retirement and begin a campaign targeted at his eighth Tour de France win. He was 23 seconds behind winner Robbie McEwen of Australia.

He stayed well back amid a tightly-packed field throughout yesterday's race on a tight, winding circuit around leafy Rymill Park, following team instructions to avoid any chance of crashing.

The race serves as a prelude to the six-day Tour Down Under which Armstrong will contest from Tuesday.

Sunday's placings do not count toward overall Tour standings.

"That was fun," Armstong said. "It felt good. I've been training a lot for this comeback and this race. It's good the first day is over and now I can get into the racing. It lets me relax a little now. There was a lot of anxiety before today."

McEwen, a winner of 12 stages in the Tour de France, won the race for Russia's Team Katusha ahead of Willem Stroetinga of the Netherlands and Graeme Brown, also of Australia.

Armstrong was ushered to the front of the field for the start of the race with another Tour de France winner, Oscar Perero of Spain, defending Tour Down Under champion Andre Greipel of German and Australian Stuart O'Grady.

Armstrong quickly settled in the middle of the peleton, avoiding any possibility of pileups on the tight corners of the 1.62-kilometer circuit.

"I think the last time I did that fast a race was back in probably 1990," Armstrong said. "I found it a bit safer and easier in the back. I was a bit nervous in the corners but the hardest thing was the sun. In one or two corners you really had the sun in your eyes."

Johan Bruyneel, the head of Armstrong's Astana team, was clear about the significance of the legendary racer's comeback ride, 3 1-2 years after his seventh Tour de France win.

"It's a special day," he said. "There's been a lot of talk since August about his comeback and finally it's a fact so it's a very special moment.

"The instructions were for Lance and the whole team not to concentrate too much about the race but just to get through it. It was better to stay at the back and stay out of trouble. For him it's an important moment to finally put that race number on his back and he's a racer again.

"I think he's happy with his condition and he didn't need to have this criterium to know that. But he's most happy to be a bike rider again."


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