For a few hours, Lance Armstrong was back in his element - on a bike and in a race.
No controversies, little fanfare.
The escape on Friday into the mountains around Aspen, Colorado, came a day after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) disciplined Armstrong with a lifetime ban from professional cycling and vacated his seven Tour de France titles after deciding he used performance-enhancing drugs.
There were only a handful of fans at the start of the Power of Four mountain bike competition, a 36-mile trek that includes plenty of climbing. Asked if he was ready, Armstrong smiled and said, "I hope so. This is going to be hard for all of us."
Decked out in black and gold and sporting a Livestrong emblem on his jersey, Armstrong tinkered with his bike and gave a kiss to girlfriend Anna Hansen before pedalling off.
His busy weekend includes a marathon Sunday. He may be banned from cycling, but it has not diminished his passion for competition.
These weekend races may have to suffice. Armstrong, who retired a year ago and turns 41 next month, said on Thursday he would no longer challenge USADA and declined to exercise his last option by entering arbitration.
He denied again that he took banned substances in his career, calling USADA's investigation a "witch hunt" without any physical evidence.
USADA said its evidence came from more than a dozen witnesses "who agreed to testify and provide evidence about their firsthand experience and/or knowledge of the doping activity of those involved in the USPS conspiracy", a reference to Armstrong's former US Postal Service cycling team.
The unidentified witnesses said they knew or had been told by Armstrong himself that he had "used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone" from before 1998 until 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and Human Growth Hormone until 1996, USADA said.
Armstrong also allegedly handed out doping products and encouraged banned methods - and used "blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions" during his 2009 comeback race on the Tour de France.
And yet another former rival came to his defence.
Miguel Indurain says Armstrong should keep his seven Tour de France titles until drug charges are proven by a single authority recognized by everyone in the sport.
Five-time Tour winner Indurain says "until an organization recognized by all decides to the contrary, the Tour victories are his".
Indurain, who won five straight Tours from 1991-95, says there are too many national and international bodies with differing interests in the fight against doping.
Indurain also calls the USADA's case against Armstrong "strange," claiming its pursuit of the American was "without scruples".
The Spanish cyclist, writing in Saturday's Marca newspaper, says he is not surprised Armstrong chose not to contest charges from USADA.
And fellow Texan Roger Clemens says he can only speculate at why Armstrong decided to stop fighting charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career.
"I guess he's just fed up with it," said Clemens, who is scheduled to pitch on Saturday for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent-league team as he attempts a comeback at the age of 50. "I don't know anything about it. I do know Lance, I've met him a couple of times. He's been real gracious for me, and was able to sign a few things for my foundation. I'm a Lance Armstrong fan, but I think just got fed up with it.
"You can only do so much, I guess."
Clemens was accused by former personal trainer Brian McNamee of PED use, and the Justice Department delved into whether Clemens had lied under oath.
In 2010, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of perjury, three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing Congress.
Clemens has largely stayed out of the public spotlight until now.
"It wasn't a grind for me," Clemens said. "If any of you guys holding these cameras or microphones, if I saw you guys doing something and somebody accused you of something, and one person says that, I would hate for that to happen to anybody standing here."
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