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Posted: Thursday February 19, 2009 1:54PM; Updated: Friday February 27, 2009 11:03AM
Austin Murphy Austin Murphy >

Lance is back, and he's still the star

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Lance Armstrong fans
Fans flocked to see Lance Armstrong at the Tour of California.

Armstrong is different now. The proprietor of a high-end, Austin, Texas, bike shop named Mellow Johnny's has mellowed considerably since leaving the sport in July, 2005, when he took the opportunity to harangue his critics from the stage on the Champs-Élysées after winning his seventh straight Tour de France.

Lance 2.0 has been, if not exactly Zen, much more relaxed and casual in his interactions with fans and media. Before he committed to this comeback, he knew he was signing up for some nasty days in the saddle. But he had no way of knowing there would be three of them in a row: Stages 1, 2 and 3, in which pre-Cambrian rains were interrupted only, it seemed, by brief interludes of hail.

We all know that ketchup contains natural mellowing agents. So, it turns out, does exhaustion. Even when he was too chilled and tired to enunciate properly, Armstrong assured his Versus interviewers that there no place he would rather be. Aside from a few crashes and some borderline hypothermia and his stolen time-trial bike, he told Bob Roll, "I'm having a good time!"

That's right, he was having a blast, when he wasn't hitting the deck after colliding with a race motorcycle, or feeling nostalgic for his stolen time bike (recovered and returned to him late Wednesday night), or wondering what happened to the feeling in his feet. ("Holy hell," he Twittered after Sunday's appallingly stormy Stage 1 into Santa Rosa, "that was terrible, maybe one of the toughest days I've had on the bike. I'm still freezing.")

But Wednesday dawned sunny in Merced. Aside from a bit of slush across the road on the descent from the fifth climb, the elements were kind to the peloton as it roared toward Clovis. The first hour of the race had been marked by a series of unsuccessful breakaways. One of them included ex-Armstrong teammates Floyd Landis (now riding with Team Ouch), Tyler Hamilton of Rock Racing and George Hincapie, now with High Road-Columbia. I was in the Mavic car, along with two great guys, Peter Tomich and Ryan Dallas, who provide wheels to riders with flat tires. They kept up a steady, hilarious banter with their mates in other Mavic vehicles, one of whom wisecracked, "Hey, they're getting the band back together."

It was a fleeting reunion. That break dissolved, but Team Saxo Bank's Jason McCartney wasn't taking no for an answer. He kept attacking, and eventually got away with Hamilton, Mancebo and Serge Pauwels of the Cervelo Test Team. After Mancebo bailed on the second climb, those guys rode their guts out for three hours, only to be reeled in the penultimate mile of this 115-mile stage.

Outside the Astana team bus, a French reporter could not keep the incredulity out of his voice when he said, "Lance, the people showed you their love today. It was huge. It was HUGE."

Armstrong sought to calm him down, assuring the fellow that, "This event has been around for four years now, and people are really starting to look forward to it and appreciate it. It's not just me -- there are other riders they look forward to seeing. It's more the event than it is about me."

I don't know about that. I was there, and I agree with the French guy.

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