Cycling: Armstrong faces tough Irish test

American hopes he has the legs to take on Cavendish again in tricky three-day tour
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The Independent Online

The final act of Lance Armstrong's comeback season starts today at 10am sharp in the unlikely setting of the forecourt of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Powerscourt, Eniskerry, just south of Dublin. The five-star hotel is set to play host to the start of stage one of the Tour of Ireland, the American's last road race of 2009 – and where he and British Tour de France star Mark Cavendish will provide the main attractions.

Cavendish is a familiar face on the Tour of Ireland, winning three successive stages last year, but Armstrong's presence is a real blast from the past.

Today is the first time Armstrong has been under starter's orders in Ireland since riding the now-defunct Nissan Classic back in 1992 as a rookie professional.

The American is now back, 17 years later, with a three-day congress dedicated to raising cancer awareness – the cause which Armstrong says is central to his sporting comeback – in the Irish capital immediately following the race.

Whilst most top Tour de France riders tend to ease down after July, after finishing third overall in Paris, the American has clearly remained in top condition.

Just last Saturday, he crushed the opposition in the Leadville 100, the United States' toughest mountain bike race, going for a solo win after 35 miles of a 100-mile event. In the process, he shaved nearly 17 minutes off the record time for the course.

Only Armstrong's frenetic pre-Ireland schedule could cast some doubt on his status as favourite in the gruelling three-day event.

Since last Saturday's race in the Rockies, the American has been on an impromptu fun-ride with 200 fans in Glasgow, seen his friends U2 play live in London and taken part in a city centre criterium race in Oslo, Norway.

If Armstrong's concentration is a shade cloudy after this hectic week's build-up, the local racers will be quick to take advantage on terrain that is anything but straightforward.

As much as 90 percent of the 550-kilometre event takes place in narrow, twisting country lanes, culminating in a multiple ascent of the dauntingly steep St Patricks Hill in Cork.

With the local tourist board as main sponsor, such a heavy emphasis on picture-postcard territory was perhaps predictable. But it still makes for fiendishly complicated racing.

"Left, right, up, down, left, right, up, down, you never know what's going to happen in this race," said Cavendish's team manager, Brian Holm.

Holm plays down any possibility of the Columbia-HTC squad dominating proceedings in the way they did in the Tour de France for the British sprinter on the flatter stages.

"You can only squeeze a lemon so many times, and Mark's been going all out since the Tour of Qatar in February. If there's a bunch sprint, then we'll see what he can do, but that's as far as it goes."

John Herety, the team manger of Rapha Condor, on e of the three British squads taking part, said: "If it hasn't gone crazy before, then logically it should all go crazy on the last day on St Patricks."

But whatever the race outcome, Herety is convinced that in terms of Armstrong and his cancer-awareness campaign, the Tour of Ireland is on to a winner.

"Just in our own case, a new sponsor backing a cancer research group, Sharp4Prostate, have now come on board for the team," Herety said. "That rise in interest is a sign of how effective Armstrong's presence has been for this race – and it hasn't even started yet."

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