112 riders lined up for the Tour of Ireland this morning but the spotlight, at least before the racing began, was all for one man: Lance Armstrong.
The American was mobbed by hundreds of fans before the start of stage one as a lack of security threatened to let the situation get out of hand. Other riders noticed the increased interest too. British national champion Kristian House commented on his Twitter feed, “Talk about the “Lance effect”. This is staggering…”
The Texan veteran had arrived in Dublin in a private jet after riding a charity criterium in Oslo organised by Thor Hushovd. He revealed on Twitter that he kindly gave a lift to Stuart O’Grady (Saxo Bank), Jeremy Hunt and Gabriel Rasch (Cervelo).
Armstrong arrived at the exclusive Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Irish Capital late on Thursday afternoon. He patted a dog, signed a few autographs but did not stop to talk to the media.
The three-day Tour of Ireland will be Armstrong’s last road race of the 2009 season and his last race in Astana colours. He will be back in 2010 but with his own The Shack team he is currently building with Johan Bruyneel.
Bruyneel is still under contract with Astana for 2010 but told Cycling Weekly he was confident he can get out it and team up with Armstrong for one last shot at the Tour de France.
“It’s a nice ending for him. He might do some mountain bike races or stuff but this is his last official race of the year,” Bruyneel said.
“It’s not a very hard race apart form the risk of bad weather and finish in Cork on Sunday (on St Patrick’s Hill), so it’s a good way for him to bow out.”
Armstrong won the Leadville 100 mountain bike at the weekend but has not raced on the road since finishing third in the Tour de France behind team mate and rival Alberto Contador.
“I think his fitness is pretty good, it must be if he’s able to do six and a half hours at altitude in a mountain bike race. But I don’t think were going to see him on the front of the peloton,” Bruyneel predicted.
“Our leader will probably be Janez Brajkovic and Haimar Zubeldia, who is riding the Vuelta. We haven’t got a sprinter, so we won’t be taking on Cavendish in the sprints.”
Armstrong last raced in Ireland, at the Nissan Classic, way back in 1992, just a few weeks after turning professional with the Motorola team. The Tour de France started in Dublin in 1998 but Armstrong was recovering from testicular cancer.
After the finish in Cork, Armstrong will head to Dublin to attend a three-day global cancer summit organized by his Livestrong Foundation. He is scheduled to open the summit with a speech on Monday morning.
The Tour of Ireland covers 576km in three stages. Friday’s 196km opening stage is from Powerscourt Gardens, south of Dublin, to Waterford. The 196km stage includes four small climbs but ends on the banks of the River Suir and is expected to end in a sprint.
If the race stays together, watch out for Mark Cavendish (Columbia) to take over the spotlight with another high-speed sprint.