Armstrong 15th after first stage in Tour de Georgia |

Armstrong 15th after first stage in Tour de Georgia

AP PhotoLance Armstrong, front-center, wearing blue and white jersey, and Bobby Julich, front-right, wearing red and white jersey, ride together during the start of the Tour of Georgia, Tuesday in Augusta, Ga.

MACON, Ga. – Lance Armstrong took a safe approach in the first stage of the Tour de Georgia, spending Tuesday in a pack with his teammates, avoiding risk of injury and finishing 15th.”We didn’t go very fast,” Armstrong said. “In fact, we went flat-out slow for most of the day. I was trying to stay out of trouble, and the guys did a good job staying out in front and keeping me out of the way.”Armstrong, who won 648-mile event last year, is using this race as a tuneup for what he said will be his final Tour de France this summer. The 33-year-old Texan, who won cycling’s most prestigious event for an unprecedented sixth straight time last year, announced his retirement plans Monday in Augusta.Robert Hunter, a South African racing for the Phonak Hearing Systems of Switzerland, won the 128.8-mile leg in 5 hours, 47 minutes, 52 seconds. With several thousand fans lining the streets of downtown Macon, Hunter edged his front tire past Ben Brooks to earn the yellow jersey.The big crowd, most of whom strained to catch a glimpse of Armstrong, energized Hunter.

“It’s not any fun when you’re racing for 200-plus kilometers unless you see someone out there,” Hunter said. “It’s really nice to see that.”Each of the top 56 finishers was credited with times of 5:47.52. Brooks, who races for the U.S. team Jelly Belly, and third-place finisher Michele Maccanti of Italy, also were credited a time of 5:47.52.”It wasn’t a traditional kind of sprint,” Brooks said of the finish. “The hill makes it kind of hard. You’ve got to have good position. I had a good shot, but Robbie’s a world-class sprinter.”Dan Bowman of Farmington Hills, Mich., held the break for 90-plus miles to earn five sprint points, but he finished in 112th place.Five of Armstrong’s seven Discovery Channel teammates, Jose Azevedo, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Tom Danielson, Jose’ Luis Rubiera and Michael Barry, had the same time.

It was difficult for Armstrong to gauge how he felt in his lengthiest competition since finishing 28th in the Ronde of Flanders in Belgium on April 3.”I don’t know,” he said. “For the first day, and not being used to race pace, it was faster than you expect. The way they were accelerating on the circuit – that kind of pace I’m not used to yet – but I remember being shocked at the speed of these circuits last year. Overall, I feel good.”The six-day race continues Wednesday in Fayetteville and ends 122.7 miles later in the northwest town of Rome.Armstrong indicated the Georgia race could end his competitive career in North America, but he might consider another practice event in May to stay fresh for the Tour de France.In an 82.1-mile first stage last year, which began and ended in Macon, Armstrong finished in 28th place. He moved up two spots in the overall standings through the second stage before winning two legs on the third day.

Tuesday’s stage offered very little rise and fall in elevation, never passing 600 feet above sea level. Altitudes near Dahlonega on Friday reach 3,260 feet, and the race tops out at 4,784 Saturday at Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.”The stage was safe today,” Armstrong said. “The circuits were safer than I remember last year, but not as fast as I remember.”Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s former longtime teammate, is the Phonak leader. This 121-man race is Landis’ first in the United States since joining the second-year team.The Pennsylvanian took 16th place, which Armstrong thought was good for someone used to riding in cooler climates overseas. The mercury hit 85 on the country roads outside Macon.”The weather for the Europeans – this is the hottest they’ve encountered this year,” Armstrong said. “It was an adjustment.”

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