ADELAIDE, Australia — Lance Armstrong said criteriums weren’t his strong point, then he undermined that claim by taking a daring, leading role in Sunday’s 31-mile prelude to cycling’s Tour Down Under.
The seven-time Tour de France champion promised a conservative approach before the race, saying he would sit in the pack and stay out of trouble, but shelved that script and headed a breakaway that led the race for 11 of 30 laps.
Armstrong was joined by 2006 Tour de France champion Oscar Pereiro in a five-man breakaway that led the race from the 17th lap, dwindling to three riders before being caught by the peleton two laps from the finish.
New Zealander Greg Henderson went on to win the race, beating Team Sky teammate Chris Sutton of Australia. Britain’s first ProTour team was making its international debut, as was Armstrong’s United States-based Team Radioshack.
Armstrong fell back to finish 62nd among 133 riders, 8 seconds behind the winner.
“Sometimes it’s better to be up in a small group rather than fighting with 100 guys for every wheel and every corner,” Armstrong said. “I had a small desire to be in a group like that. That one stayed away longer than we all expected.”
Armstrong took a prominent role in the breakaway, leading out repeatedly and crossing the start-finish line in first place after the 19th and 22nd laps. Wearing the red and gray uniform of Team Radioshack and the yellow and black helmet of his Livestrong foundation, the Texan supported his claim that he is a better, stronger rider than when he finished 29th overall in last year’s race.
“I feel good,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been training hard and training with some intensity and I feel strong.”
Armstrong stationed himself near the head of the peleton through the early stages of the race on a a tight street circuit in Adelaide’s eastern parklands.
He was on hand to join a 17th-lap break that featured Spain’s Pereiro, riding for the Kazakhstan-based Astana team, France’s Mikael Cherel and Mathieu Perget, and Slovakia’s former world junior mountainbike champion Peter Sagan.
The small group set a sapping pace, eventually opening leads of up to 13 seconds over the peleton. Pereiro took his turns in front, leading across the line after the 23rd and 27th laps with Armstrong close on his wheel.
Slowly, the peleton began to draw the leaders in and after 24 laps their lead was down to 11 seconds, then 9, then 5. On the 28th lap, the breakaway group was gathered in and first Team High Road, then Team Sky took the front.
Henderson anticipated a bunched finish and nestled near the head of the pack before timing his sprint to cross the finish line inches ahead of Sutton, winning in 1 hour, 4 minutes, 33 seconds.
The New Zealander said his teammates could not have dreamed of such a successful international debut.
“We had a team meeting before the race and our objective was just to make a presence for Team Sky,” Henderson said. “One of the team said a dream start would be a win and to achieve that is unbelievable.
“To start a team off in this way is just unheard of.”
The official first stage of the six-state Tour Down Under takes place Tuesday in rural South Australia rate and the race finishes Sunday.