Armstrong races in New Mexico at Tour of the Gila |

Armstrong races in New Mexico at Tour of the Gila

SILVER CITY, N.M. – Lance Armstrong said Wednesday there were plenty of good reasons he wanted to return to the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.

Big climbs, a time trial, a competitive field.

The seven-time Tour de France champion finished 22nd in the Tour of the Gila’s opening stage, a 95-mile road race to Mogollon that was capped by a grueling climb over the final 5 miles.

Armstrong returned to the five-day race for the second straight year and said the New Mexico event compares favorably to the narrow, twisting climbs of European racing. The Gila race has more than 25,000 feet of climbing and 339 miles of road racing – a good early-season test.

But the biggest advantage? Traveling to New Mexico doesn’t require a time zone change from Armstrong’s Colorado training base.

“It gives me some race stages,” he said. “Plus, it’s a big field. There’s the altitude. There are a lot of pluses to being here.”

Armstrong’s RadioShack teammate, Levi Leipheimer, won the opening stage after breaking from a pack near the finish of the steep ascent in the foothills of the Gila Mountains. Leipheimer won the Gila’s overall title last year and had to work harder to win the opening stage this time.

“I definitely had to suffer more,” Leipheimer said. “I haven’t been at elevation much this year. I’m still hurting. It’s tough. There’s nothing as painful.”

Armstrong and Leipheimer are using the Tour of the Gila as a buildup to next month’s Tour of California. Because the California race was pushed back a few weeks this year, the New Mexico event has drawn a stronger and larger field.

“We went faster at the end today than last year,” Leipheimer said. “It was more of a traditional race, where the break got away and the pace continued to pick up.”

Later in the season, of course, comes the Tour de France. Armstrong has spent recent weeks training in Aspen, Colo., and said he liked how the New Mexico race helped him prepare last season for the sport’s biggest event later this summer.

“It’s still a long ways away. That’s one way to look at it,” Armstrong said. “You could also turn it around and say that we’re about 80 days out. In some sense, that’s not much. You’ve got to be light. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to climb well, time-trial well and bring a strong team.”

A third RadioShack rider, Jason McCartney, is joining Armstrong and Leipheimer in New Mexico. They are riding as the Mellow Johnny’s team, named for Armstrong’s bike shop in Austin, Texas, under a rule that allows Pro Tour teams to send three riders to national-level races.

Armstrong arrived at the Gila last year on a rehabilitation ride after he broke a collarbone. His most recent health issue was an intestinal virus that forced him to drop out of the Circuit de la Sarthe race in France earlier this month.

“It was the worst stomach bug I’ve had, but it passed quick,” he said. “Sometimes, those can linger for close to a week. It was gone within 48 hours. But while it was there, it was not fun.”

Armstrong said his fitness is good – “better than last year going into this race.”

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