by Justin Davis
ADELAIDE, Australia, Jan 22, 2009 (AFP) – Lance Armstrong avoided a potential fall in Thursday’s third stage of the Tour Down Under that was marred by crashes, but eventually won by Australian Graeme Brown in a bunch sprint.
His countryman Allan Davis, of Quick Step, finished just behind Rabobank sprinter Brown to narrowly retain the leader’s ochre jersey.
Thanks to bonus seconds awarded for his win, Brown is second overall on the same time as Davis with two-time winner Stuart O’Grady in third at 05 secs behind.
The first hard-fought day of racing so far proved to be a chaotic affair, with Columbia’s defending champion Andre Greipel of Germany one of nine riders who dropped out, most through injuries picked up in crashes.
After just 15km Greipel dramatically smashed into a motorbike parked on the side of the road. As he hit the ground, his bike flew back into the peloton, taking down more riders.
Armstrong, making his comeback from retirement here in a bid to hone his form ahead of bigger goals later this season, then jumped into a quality-packed lead group of 16 riders that broke free after just 20km of the 136 km race from Unley to Victor Harbor.
The 37-year-old seven-time Tour de France winner was given his own personal taste of the risks of racing in the south Australian countryside, avoiding a potential tumble when he rode over a stray branch in the middle of the road.
Despite its quality, Armstrong’s breakaway group was eventually reeled in by the Quick Step and Rabobank teams at the 100km mark.
But the American, despite the testing racing conditions — and a helicopter that he had complained was too close overhead for comfort — appeared pleased he had been able to do some quality racing.
“It was a tough start, with the wind and everybody nervous because of the wind,” said Armstrong.
“We didn’t get organized, but it was fun to try (the breakaway). I felt pretty good. It was a strong group so you had to have decent legs to even make it.
“That (kind of) high end intensity I haven’t had yet. If you looked around (the group) there was some horsepower in there, so I’ve got to be happy with that.”
After Armstrong’s group was pulled in, the attacks came and went before young Australian Cameron Meyer, racing despite having to pop a dislocated shoulder back into place Wednesday following a crash, flew off the front with Glen D’Hollander.
Meyer then left the Belgian in his wake and appeared to be surging to a possible win before the sprinters’ teams eventually swallowed him up with 7km to race.
In the end, the collective efforts of Brown’s Rabobank team delivered their first victory of the year.
“The guys rode for 80km to try and bring the break back, so I’m glad I could bring the win home for them,” said Brown.
“When I started winding it up, I felt pretty confident and just let it go.”
Meyer, an accomplished track racer for Australia, is also one of many up and coming talents who is set for a glittering career on the road – a prospect he boosted no end by defying the pain of his injured shoulder.
“Crashing is just a part of bike racing, and sometimes you’ve just got to forget about the pain and give it a go,” he said.
“It hurt, but it’s my first Pro Tour race and it’s in Australia. There’s no way I was going to pull out.”