ADELAIDE, Australia -- Lance Armstrong glanced down at his power meter a couple of hours into the third stage of the Tour Down Under on Thursday and liked what he saw.
The meter told him that for the first 2 hours of the 3-hour, 15-minute stage, as part of a leading group that stretched the field on the 85-mile, wind-wracked ride, he had been putting out an average 340 watts of power.
Armstrong needed only that glance to confirm to himself that he was where he should be.
"It's hard to say now because I'm tired," Armstrong said after the ride. "All in all I think it's the kind of stuff I need to do. I need to get in the race and work that top end. Like I've said a hundred times here, I can't do that in training."
The seven-time Tour de France champion was fifth over the crest of Wickham's Hill in his strongest performance of the tour so far. And he was still among the main bunch when he swept across the finish line, credited with 32nd place and the same time as the winner.
Armstrong was 39th overall after the third stage, 29 seconds behind Allan Davis of Australia. His former teammate George Hincapie, a key figure in his seven Tour de France victories, was fourth in the stage and is 12th overall.
Armstong has worked hard since his arrival in Australia to minimize expectations for his first professional road race since his return from a three-year retirement. He's emphasized that he lacks high-end training at this stage of the season to reach full fitness, and stressed that only hard racing will give him his race legs.
Armstrong knew when he read his power meter on Thursday's grueling third stage from Unley in Adelaide's north to Victor Harbor on its rugged south coast that his fitness and his comeback were on track.
"I looked down at my power meter after 2 hours, average watts after 2 hours was 340 watts," he said. "You can't do that in training."
He had to work close to capacity to stay with the 16-man group that led the stage through arduous switchback climbs up Chandler's and Wickham's hills, but looked comfortable among a powerful leading group.
"It felt all right," he said. "That high-end intensity I don't have yet. I haven't worked that part of my training budget.
"You had to be strong just to be in the [leading] group but you looked around and there was some horsepower in there. I've got to be happy with that."
Armstrong avoided a crash about 9 miles into the stage that sent eight riders out of the tour, including defending champion and first stage winner Andre Greipel of U.S.-based Team Columbia. Greipel dislocated a shoulder.
Davis was brought down in the melee caused by a police motorbike but remounted to finish second behind compatriot Graeme Brown in the stage and maintain the leader's jersey.
Armstrong participated Thursday in what might have been the decisive break. But a lack of cooperation or organization among leading riders saw the group fade.
"I think some guys [in the leading group] were playing a little possum sometimes," he said.
"I mean that was the perfect group. You look around and you think we don't have to work so hard, we don't have to kill ourselves, just ride steady and they'll never catch us."
Winds gusting to near gale force tested his stamina Thursday, as did a helicopter filming the race that hovered low over the leading group.
"When it's that windy, the last thing you need is a big wind machine sitting on top of you because it's swirling so much," Armstrong said. "You know it's not safe and they can get the same shot if you just pull up a few hundred meters.
"Also it's a little nauseating listening to that thing all day long, no offense to helicopters."