ESCONDIDO, February 23 – Lance Armstrong is ahead of schedule in comeback preparations for theTour de France, but the seven-time winner of cycling's greatest race as a lot of work to do before July.Armstrong finished seventh in the Tour of California which ended here Sunday but played mainly a support role to Astana teammate and fellow American Levi Leipheimer, who won the US event for the third time in a row.
"We’re happy with where we are," Armstrong said. "If you compare February 22 with any other year, we are well ahead of that."
Armstrong is making a comeback after three years of retirement, a return that began last month at the Tour Down Under.
But whether or not Armstrong can regain the form and fitness that helped him capture seven Tour titles will depend on the success he has in training and in May’s Giro d’Italia, the next major event on Armstrong’s Tour tuneup schedule.
"He needs time," Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "His condition is pretty good but he was out for three years physically and he checked out mentally. There’s a lot of little things. It takes time.
"It would not be very smart to accelerate that process. We’re not in a hurry. He’s fit. With a lot of good races and a lot of good training, I think it’s possible to be back at a very high level."
The main question for cycling fans is can Armstrong be in shape to become the man others ride for come July in France on a team with Spain’s Alberto Contador and fast-improving Leipheimer.
"Can he compare to what he once was? That we don’t know," Bruyneel said. "It looks pretty good. After two stage races, it’s very positive – better than I expected.
"I don’t think we can know how far he can get in the Tour until the end of the Giro. We don’t know how he’s going to recover. We don’t know how he’s going to be in the hills. Hopefully he can keep that progress.
"If there is somebody stronger, he is going to be a teammate like he was here."
Armstrong said he must drop weight, aiming for his past Tour weight of 74kg, and keep his strength as the weeks or work wear on.
"To win the Tour you have to be as strong as possible and as light as possible," Armstrong said. "I don’t really have to get that much stronger but I have to get lighter – 3 1/2 years away, not watching every gram of food you put into your body, takes it’s toll.
"You have got to get back into it. The Giro will be very helpful for that. It’s not complicated. Power goes up. Weight comes down. There’s a perfect intersection."
Armstrong’s goals for the Giro will be similar to those of the past week, only when that race ends, the Tour de France will be less than two months away.
"We’re coming to race. I just don’t know how strong I can be," Armstrong said.
"The goal is to be competitive. If I make top 10, top five, if I’m feeling great top three, that would be perfect. We will come into the Giro as fit as we can possibly be."
Armstrong said being a support rider might even help him.
"It might be good for me personally to do things like that," Armstrong said. "I’ve spent 15 years sitting on people’s wheels waiting to pull away and take the glory. It might be good for my life."
Part of his comeback is posting mundane daily activities on Twitter so internet users can follow his movements, in part to ease those who have doping suspicions from past controversies.
"This comeback I was very clear we would try to be very open and honest," he said. "There’s no way to think anything mischievious is going on.
"You talk about doping, the most important thing is the whereabouts. All you’ve got to do is look at my Twitter and you know where I am. It’s as transparent as I can be."
In the end, Armstrong is working hard to win an eighth Tour but has no guarantees of anything should he fall short. But one thing Bruyneel thinks is already happening is that Armstrong is raising the work ethic for all rivals.
"He really brings everybody to a higher level," Bruyneel said. "Other teams and other riders were more ready. If it’s something that goes on during the year, I think we’re going to see great cycling."