Lance Armstrong To Compete In California Tour

Normally, the Tour of California bicycle race doesn't generate news beyond the cycling community. However, this year's race is different. The nine-day event, which starts Saturday, will be Lance Armstrong's first major U.S. road race since announcing last year that he was coming out of retirement.

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The Tour of California bicycle race starts tomorrow in Sacramento, which would not normally generate a lot of attention outside the cycling community except this year, the field includes Lance Armstrong. The nine-day tour is Armstrong's first major road race in the United States since he announced he was coming out of retirement last year.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Race organizers expect a whopper of a crowd at tomorrow's start of the Tour of California, up to 75,000 people. Even in a downtown Sacramento hotel yesterday, there was a palpable buzz. A big crowd of reporters hubbubbed as they waited for a dream press conference with some of cycling's top stars in recent years: Tyler Hamilton, Ivan Basso, Floyd Landis and, of course, Lance Armstrong.

To the skeptics in the crowd, it was also a rogues gallery of doping. Hamilton, Basso and Landis all were suspended for alleged banned drug use. Armstrong was dogged by allegations, all which he denied, during his streak of seven straight Tour de France victories.

Reporters hoping for an honest group session on doping - think Alex Rodriguez times four - were disappointed. Hamilton said he's not looking back. Basso spoke in Italian about things other than drugs. And Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, crashed during practice.

Mr. MICHAEL ROTH (Master of ceremonies, Tour of California): Fortunately he is OK. He is pretty bruised up. His hip is OK, and we expect him to start the race on Saturday.

GOLDMAN: So that left master of ceremonies Michael Roth, who works for the company putting on the race, to introduce the man everyone really turned up for. Lance Armstrong sat on the dais wearing a dark T-shirt and an off-white baseball cap pulled low. He calmly fielded a few questions about doping until he called on Paul Kimmage. He's a reporter for the Sunday Times of London and a professed anti-doping crusader. Kimmage thinks Landis and Basso were guilty of doping despite their claims of innocence, and he criticized Armstrong for welcoming them back after their suspensions recently ended.

Mr. PAUL KIMMAGE (Reporter, Sunday Times of London): What is it about these dopers that you seem to admire so much?

Mr. LANCE ARMSTRONG (Cyclist): Excuse me? What is your name again?

Mr. KIMMAGE: My name is Paul Kimmage. I work for the Sunday Times. I asked for an interview, but I didn't get one.

GOLDMAN: Armstrong, a cancer survivor who said his comeback in large part was to raise global awareness about the disease, was controlled but angry as he explained to Kimmage why he didn't grant an interview.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said: Folks, the cancer has been in remission for four years, but our cancer has now returned - meaning me. So I think it goes without saying, no, we're not going to sit down and do an interview. You are not worth the chair that you're sitting on with a statement like that.

GOLDMAN: Later, after the press conference, Kimmage said he was disappointed that Armstrong portrayed him as being insensitive to those with cancer. Kimmage, who rode in three Tours de France, says he merely wants to rid the sport he loves of the cancer of doping. He worries that with Armstrong, Landis, Basso and Hamilton back on the scene, cycling will slip backwards after making recent progress on the drug front.

Tour of California race organizers say they've done everything in their power to ensure a clean race. Whether someone admits or not, says one official, is neither here nor there for us.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Sacramento.

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