DUBLIN – US cycling star Lance Armstrong stole the show as he was mobbed by hundreds of fans during the Tour of Ireland here on Friday.
The seven-time Tour de France champion was competing in the race for the first time in 17 years and fans flocked to the opening stage at the foot of the Wicklow mountains, swamping the Texan for autographs and briefly holding up the start.
Armstrong has not raced on the road since finishing third in the Tour de France behind team mate and rival Alberto Contador.
And British rider Russell Downing of the Candi TV team won the 196 km stage from Powerscourt to Waterford with Astana's Armstrong finishing 23rd and Mark Cavendish of Columbia trailing in just 68th.
Armstrong is competing for the last time with the Astana team and ends his season when the three-day 576km race finishes in Cork.
But Armstrong, who last rode in the competition in 1992, was quick to declare his priorities as he prepares for his cancer foundation's Livestrong summit in Dublin.
"That's the most important thing," he said at the start line.
Armstrong will not have much time for rest and relaxation after this weekend's challenging 576km race, with an international cancer summit to open in Dublin on Monday.
The 37-year-old cancer survivor said the Livestrong conference was the most important part of his Irish trip.
"We get to race for a few days and then sit down and talk about the global burden," he said.
"We've had a lot of great help and support from the people of Dublin and the people of Ireland."
Astana team boss Johann Bruyneel has suggested the tour was not a hard race, with the biggest risks being bad weather and the steep St Patrick's hill finish in Cork on Sunday.
"It's steep. It's completely straight and steep," Armstrong said.
"Sunday is a tough day, but every day is narrow roads and hills here and there."
The second stage on Saturday covers 198km from Clonmel to Killarney.