Originally created 04/17/05

Armstrong brings prestige in return to Georgia

The volunteers are lined up. The signs are out. And Augusta officials are ready for their second grand sporting event in two weeks.

After a one-year absence, the Tour de Georgia returns to Augusta, and the six-day stage race will present one of the world's greatest athletes: Lance Armstrong.

The presence of the six-time Tour de France champion causes sports fans from the cycling world to the college-football-crazed South to take notice. Mr. Armstrong is back this year to defend his 2004 Tour de Georgia overall title.

The six-stage, 650-mile race starts Tuesday on Broad Street.

"Lance Armstrong's participation ... further validates that the (race) is the premier race in North America," said Stan Holm, the tour's executive director.

"For his American fans, it's a wonderful and rare opportunity to see him compete against the world's best riders," Mr. Holm said.

Mr. Armstrong won the overall leader's yellow jersey in his first try. His presence in the 2004 race drew more than 700,000 spectators from 38 states - an increase of 500,000 fans from 2003's inaugural race.

The race, which benefits the Georgia Cancer Coalition, had an estimated economic impact of $70 million on the state.

As a survivor of testicular cancer, Mr. Armstrong was the sentimental favorite. He had decided to skip this year's race, but coalition board member and fellow cancer survivor Hamilton Jordan reportedly urged him to return to the Peach State's roads. Mr. Jordan also serves on the board of Mr. Armstrong's foundation.

Organizers designed the course while thinking of Mr. Armstrong, who prefers to spend most of his energy training for the Tour de France rather than competing in lesser races.

Though Georgia's tourism agency conceived the race as a showcase, they adjusted the stages to include the punishing hills Mr. Armstrong seeks.

His unprecedented six Tour de France victories have made him an international inspiration to cancer patients and their loved ones. His yellow plastic wristbands inscribed "live strong" have become a fashion accessory, with their sales helping his foundation raise $5 million for cancer research.

Last Sunday, Mr. Armstrong placed 15th in the Lemire Memorial Grand Prix cycling race in Ojai, Calif., after making a last-minute surprise entry.

He plans to hold a news conference Monday afternoon in Augusta. There has been some speculation that Mr. Armstrong will make a major announcement, possibly that this summer will be his last Tour de France.

The start of this year's race in the home of the Medical College of Georgia, which includes a cancer research facility, ties the event nicely together.

Amateur cyclist Dennis DeLong appreciates both themes. He's a nurse at Augusta Oncology Associates who has given wristbands to patients and answered their questions about Mr. Armstrong.

But he also appreciates the quality of the competitors lured to the race.

"If some of the teams that are in the Tour de Georgia were in Europe, this would be considered a very big deal," he said.

Riders such as Cesar Grajales also benefit from Mr. Armstrong's participation in the Tour de Georgia. Last year, the Colombian, who specializes in riding up mountains, won Stage 6 ahead of Mr. Armstrong and Jens Voigt, another perennial Tour de France contender. Mr. Grajales finished sixth overall. The stage win was the biggest of his career and the most elite in the history of his team, Athens-based Jittery Joe's.

Both rider and team return this year, but not together. The Navigators Insurance team, which has a more flexible budget than Jittery Joe's and competes in some of the top stage races in Europe, signed Mr. Grajales to be a team leader last fall.

The premier cycling event kicks off at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Augusta Common. The field of 128 riders will make three laps downtown before exiting the city through Columbia and McDuffie counties to the stage 1 finish line in Macon.

The downtown start loop, which consists of Broad and Reynolds streets between Seventh and 12th streets, will be closed from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday.

In the third edition of the cycling event, Augusta is back with elite status as the starting city.

"We got what we asked for," Greater Augusta Sports Council Executive Director Tammy Stout said. "So we need the whole community to come out and line the route."

Riders will transfer from Macon to Fayetteville and then on Wednesday head for the North Georgia mountains as part of the 642-mile competition. The race will conclude Sunday in Alpharetta.

Staff Writer Chris Gay contributed to this article.


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