The Tour Down Under, which finished yesterday, is traditionally the first major race on the UCI's cycling road race calendar, but in the greater scheme of things it's rarely a barometer for the rest of the season, with few of the top riders present and many of those who are there treating it as a six-day tune-up for the rigours of the year to come.
This year it was a little different.
While Quick Step's Allan Davis won his home race, international media attention was focussed predominantly on the man who finished a creditable 29th (out of 122 finishers), 49 seconds behind the winner.
That man is, of course, Lance Armstrong, winner of a record seven Tours de France, who was returning to competitive racing after a three-year absence. And who, despite constantly playing down expectations, is aiming to record an eighth triumph in the 2009 Tour, which will finish on the Champs Elysées in Paris on July 26th: six months today.
I have previously written about my regret on hearing the news of Armstrong's comeback. Even for a man who has made the impossible appear merely routine ever since his return from cancer in the mid-1990s, to win the most physically demanding race in his sport - in any sport - at close to 38 defies all apparent logic. (Only one cyclist over the age of 35 - Firmin Lambot, in 1922 - has ever won Le Tour.)
Having said that, a shiver of excitement started running down my spine as the daily stage results from Australia started to come in last week. Armstrong performed well throughout, always there or thereabouts, and even jumping off the front of the pack a couple of times to test his legs.
The fact he "only" finished 29th is neither here nor there. The Tour de France is not won in January, as a cyclist's peak form is a transitory state which cannot be sustained for more than a week or two. As he has always done, Armstrong will be working to a precise schedule with the sole aim of delivering his maximum performance in the final two weeks of the Tour, which features seven stages in the high mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps, as well as an Alpine individual time trial.
July is the only month that matters where Lance Armstrong is concerned, a singularity of focus which is shared by few of his rivals, most of whom compete in at least one of the other two Grand Tours (the Giro d'Italia in May and the Vuelta a Espana in September). Although there will be key markers along the way which will give us an increasingly accurate indication of Armstrong's performance level relative to his key rivals, we will not know for sure until the Tour has hit those first slopes of the Pyrenees. If the American is listed among the starters when this year's Tour starts in Monaco on - how fittingly! - the 4th of July, it will only be because he believes he has a genuine chance in the race.
Certainly Armstrong's Astana team will be one of the strongest line-ups - if not the strongest - come July. In Alberto Contador, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer, he will have teammates who have finished, respectively, first, second and third in previous Tours de France. And that, perhaps, is also the single biggest threat to Armstrong's victory hopes. Contador will most probably be the main threat. Still only 25, he has completed the rarified hat-trick of winning all three Grand Tours, the youngest of only five riders in cycling history to do so (the others being Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault).
Fundamentally, I'm a logical person. My head tells me there is a mountain of data and precedent which suggests that Lance Armstrong cannot possibly win the Tour de France; arguably he may only be the third or fourth rider in his own team. But you know what? In my heart, I believe that if anyone can do it, Armstrong can. And that's enough for me to count down the six months between now and Paris with an excitement I haven't felt, well, since Lance Armstrong was last competing.
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