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Self-deprecating Armstrong ready for next challenge, in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Buck up, Lance Armstrong fans. Maybe your hero was sandbagging. Maybe the seven-time Tour de France winner was trying to lull his rivals into a false sense of security as he ticked off his woes at last Friday's introductory press conference for the eight-day Amgen Tour of California, which starts Sunday.

While the sun shone outside -- to the profound relief of officials of a race that had become synonymous with prolonged downpours -- Armstrong's mood was more subdued. Indeed, it was as muted as the grey in the new Radio Shack team jerseys, which have underwhelmed cycling fans, one of whom commented on the team's Web site, "please put the person or persons who did this on anti-depressants and then consult with a real designer."

The day before Armstrong's gutsy ride up Mont Ventoux last July, a performance that sealed his third-place finish in the Tour de France, his friend Bart Knaggs looked to the 2010 season with even higher hopes. The hard work -- "Coming off the couch, dropping ten kilos to get where he is now" -- had been done. In 2010, it was assumed, the Texan would continue to sharpen his already impressive form.

Instead, Year 2 of The Comeback is off to a less auspicious start. "I've struggled a little to find the condition that I like," said Armstrong on Friday. Each time he's begun to feel good, health issues have "complicated things."

After scratching himself from the one-day classic Milan-San Remo with a stomach virus, Armstrong also bailed on the Amstel Gold Race in Holland, in order to spend more time with his family. He withdrew from the four-day Circuit Sarthe-Pays de le Loire after coming down with a virulent intestinal infection -- "the roughest stomach virus I've ever had," he Tweeted.

For every encouraging performance (he was pleased with his 27th place on a cold, wet cobbled course at the Tour of Flanders), he's had a low moment (suffering "like the proverbial dog" at the recent Tour of the Gila -- where he was arguably outperformed by several members of his Trek-Livestrong U23 team).

"I'm close to 39," he noted (his birthday is September 18). I race with guys in their mid-20s" -- a generation of riders that is, in his opinion, more formidable "than the riders I raced when I was 30.

"So I got hit from both sides, so to speak. I got older, and these guys are just better talents, I think."

Making it a triple-whammy, further hampering Armstrong's training and recovery, is his beyond-ambitious schedule. Even if the guy does travel by private jet, no one else in the peloton is also juggling a massive commitment to a foundation while trying to be present for four children in two states.

"One of the things I've tried to do recently," Armstrong continued, "is simplify my life." (Not falling under that category: conceiving a second child with his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, who is due in October.) Once again, Armstrong will work as a domestique for his taciturn teammate Levi Leipheimer, the Santa Rosa resident who has won this race three years running. Will Levi return the favor come July? "Well," said Armstrong, sounding like something less than an alpha male, "first we have to the get to the place where I deserve his support."

Whether this Eeyore persona was genuine or tactical; whether Armstrong is truly worried, or if he's trying sucker his rivals, or some combination of both, it's unprecedented. I've never heard him so nakedly self-deprecating.

In stark contrast to the Texan's occasional gloom was the chipperness of Tour of California officials, who exhibited the near-euphoria of those who have dared greatly, and whose gamble has paid off.

Since its inception in 2006, America's premiere bike race has been run in February -- often in pelting rains. The first three stages of last year's TOC were especially soggy and cold. "That's hard," Andrew Messick admitted. "I mean, that's Belgium."

So Messick, a strong, avid cyclist who also happens to be president of AEG Sports, which puts on the race, threw his weight behind pulling up stakes and shifting the event to mid-May. That move annoyed plenty of the sport's elders, over in Europe. By forcing some riders choose between the Tour of Cali and the venerable, three-week Giro d'Italia, Messick & Co. were taking "a huge gamble," according to Phil Liggett, who will be calling the race on Versus, along with his wingman Paul Sherwen.

To find out how the gamble worked out, one only had to observe with whom Armstrong shared the dais. There was Team HTC-Columbia's Mark Cavendish, the outrageously gifted young sprinter who won six stages at last year's Tour de France. Despite a sluggish start to his season, which has led to moments of frustration, the so-called Manx Missile is winning again, and will be an overwhelming favorite in Sunday afternoon's first stage into Sacramento.

At the far end of the table sat Andy Schleck, probably the second-best stage racer in the world right now, behind Alberto Contador. Schleck climbs like an angel despite hailing from Luxembourg, a country not known for its mountains.

To Schleck's right sat his dashing teammate, the powerful Swiss rider Fabian (Spartacus) Cancellera, a three-time World Time Trial Champion who is probably the hottest rider on the planet right now. His recent, ridiculously dominant run through the Europe's cobbled classics -- three weekends, three wins, culminating in his second victory at Paris-Roubaix -- is the subject of a feature in the current VeloNews. Yes, the Giro d'Italia is more prestigious, as one of cycling's three grand tours. But the truth is, the Tour of Cali has the more star-studded field.

"We are really happy the sun is shining," said Messick, in an understatement. The move to May -- "the blue skies and warm weather" -- has given the TOC the opportunity to get higher into the mountains, and to "showcase new and better parts of the state" -- to say nothing of those garden spots to which the race will be returning: Modesto, Visalia and Bakersfield, to name a few.

The novelty of Armstrong's comeback having worn off, it remains to be seen if the fifth Tour of Cali will create as much buzz as the fourth. Armstrong's doubts about his fitness have not diminished his ability to bring mainstream sports fans -- and athletes from mainstream sports -- to cycling. Although there limits. Yes, he would happily accept an honorary cycling jersey, Sacramento Mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson told the Texan. "But no Spandex. I will not be wearing Spandex."

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