PINOS ALTOS, May 4 – Lance Armstrong capped his return from injury with a second-place finish behind teammate Levi Leipheimer in the Tour of the Gila Sunday – a solid tuneup for the Giro d'Italia.Leipheimer and Armstrong finished one-two in the five-day race in New Mexico, seven-time Tour de France champion Armstrong just missing out on the stage win in the mountainous 105-mile final stage.
"Of course breaking my collarbone has changed my ambitions for the Giro, but I look forward to that race," Armstrong said. "I can ride – without pressure – in an event that I’ve always wanted to do and I can try to help Levi win.
Armstrong, racing for the first time since surgery to repair the collarbone he broke in a crash in Spain on March 23, said he believes he can contend for some stage wins in the Giro, but that Leipheimer has the best chance to deliver the overall win for Astana.
"The first priority is to protect him and make sure that he fulfills his potential there," Armstrong said. "It would be an amazing thing for an American to win the tour of Italy again. I’d be pleased to be there and help."
Armstrong, Leipheimer and Astana teammate Chris Horner competed in the low-key Tour of the Gila as independents, with Astana manager Johan Bruyneel on hand to assess their performance.
"It didn’t really play out like we wanted it to be," Bruyneel said of the final stage. "It’s a little disappointment he didn’t win the stage, but overall I think it was a good race for the team."
The three teammates appeared to have Armstrong positioned for the stage win until the last 500 meters.
"I didn’t know the finish. I didn’t know it was so much uphill," Armstrong said. "I thought maybe it would flatten out and there’d be a high-speed sprint … but it kept going up."
He was caught behind another rider and had to go around. By that time, Leipheimer was ahead with eventual stage-winner Phil Zajicek on his wheel.
"When I finally got back to the wheel uphill, I was cooked," Armstrong said.
But the second-place stage finish was enough to vault Armstrong from fourth to second overall, while Leipheimer kept the top overall spot he held coming into the stage.
Leipheimer, who also won the Tour of California and the Vuelta of Castilla and Leon this season, was looking forward to the return to Europe.
"Let’s move now to Italy," said Leipheimer, who nevertheless cautioned that any talk of him as a favorite "is a little bit overblown."
"The Italians are super focused on it, and they know the Giro in and out," he said. "With the Giro, we’ll just take it day by day, kilometer by kilometer and just sort of have fun and do our best."