SNOWBASIN RESORT, Utah -- Nico Lebrun was losing focus on the cycling portion of Saturday's XTERRA USA Championship until he looked ahead and realized he was closing on seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
"Amazing," Lebrun thought to himself.
That adrenaline boost proved more than enough for the 38-year-old Frenchman to run away with the title, his second in three years.
Armstrong finished fifth overall, about five minutes off the pace in his first XTERRA race, and first triathlon in 22 years.
"I've been asked a lot if I had fun," Armstrong said on the podium with the other top finishers.
"No," he said with a laugh. "It's a challenge. ... At 40 years old I guess I could have gone home, drank beer and played golf all day long. But it's good to come out and test yourself with these young guys and support a sport that I think is really cool."
The fans were thrilled that he did, showing up en masse along the course that started at Pineview Reservoir and finished at the site of the downhill races in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Fellow racers certainly didn't mind the extra attention given their sport, considering they often bask in anonymity.
"He made the stage a lot bigger today," said Dan Hugo, who led most of the race only to see Lebrun pass him with less than 1½ miles left in the run. "I realized it was a bigger opportunity to get it right. I wish the result was a little different."
Lebrun finished the 1,500-meter swim, 17.7-mile off-road ride and 6.1 -mile trail run in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 26 seconds. He pocketed $10,000 for the win.
Hugo of South Africa finished 24 seconds back.
American Josiah Middaugh took third (2:25:37) and four-time XTERRA world champ and defending national champ Conrad "Caveman" Stoltz of South Africa was fourth (2:27:30).
Armstrong turned in a more-than-respectable 2:29:25, losing most of his time in the transition areas between the swim and bike, then on some technical portions of the ride.
"It was harder than I expected," Armstrong said. "I knew it was going to be awkward. I didn't know some things would be as awkward as they were."
He said it was a big adjustment going from cold water and an upper-body exercise in the swim to cycling -- even though he was a championship triathlete in his younger days.
Armstrong was out of the water before Stoltz and Middaugh, and was in third place for a while.
He said he realized when Lebrun passed him that he couldn't pull off the victory, and never had any grand expectations.
Asked if he was feeling like someone who just turned 40, he said, "Yeah, today, right now, all of it."
But that didn't mean Armstrong wouldn't compete again.
"I'll probably do another one but now's not the time to ask," he said 15 minutes after the finish.
Lebrun and the others said they wouldn't be surprised to see Armstrong race next month in Maui at the XTERRA World Championship.
Hugo will be there, looking to turn the tide on Lebrun.
Maybe this time he'll be ready.
"If you hear Nico coming, it's too late," Stoltz said.
It was true Saturday.
"It was a pretty crushing moment," Hugo said of hearing Lebrun's footsteps two kilometers from the finish. "It's one thing when you know someone's coming. It hit me out of left field. Congrats to him. I'll get another chance in a month's time."
Stoltz hopes Armstrong continues racing.
"He keeps calling himself an old man, but I don't think he's that old," said Stoltz, who is approaching his 38th birthday. "He has such a busy life. To do this type of performance on the first try is pretty significant."
Three-time XTERRA world champ Melanie McQuaid of Canada won the women's title. She finished in 2:43:00. Lesley Patterson was second for the women in 2:45:59, and Danelle Kabush was third (2:47:43).