Lance Armstrong can still rattle and shake with the best on the backbreaking cobblestones, a key lesson to take into this summer's Tour de France.
At 38, Armstrong was a factor until very deep in Sunday's Tour of Flanders, a one-day classic which he saw as a training run while others raced it as their biggest challenge of the season.
"I felt better than I felt all year," Armstrong said after finishing the 262-kilometer (163-mile) trek through northern Flanders only 2.35 minutes behind the winner, Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara. In 27th spot, he was the top finisher of his Team Radioshack.
The seven-time Tour de France winner used the classic with its long stretches of cobblestones as preparation for the third stage of the Tour de France, which will include seven cobblestone sectors for 13 kilometers (eight miles), with one only 10 kilometers (six miles) from the finish line.
"It is not his type of race, and to perform here like he did today is very good," team leader Johan Bruyneel told The Associated Press. "You would not expect him to compete with the specialists who target this classic."
With 30 kilometers (18 miles) to go, Armstrong was still near the head of a pack which had already had to deal with rough weather, relentless cobblestones and a dozen short but steep hills.
"A little surprising," Armstrong said of his performance.
The picture-pretty view of Armstrong is of him racing away from opposition on the sun-splashed barren peaks of the French Alps, or powering along in solitude on the time trial roads where he has prepared and practiced every twist and turn.
As he chases his eighth yellow jersey this July, organizers have added gray, gleaming cobblestones which easily puncture tires, break down bikes and could cause serious accidents and crashes during the July 6 Wanze-Arenberg Porte du Hainaut stage. It is close to northern Belgium, where the Tour of Flanders was raced.
Ride cobblestones well and you will still not win the Tour de France there. Ride them badly, however, and you might lose it there.
On the typically narrow cobblestoned roads, a flat tire or a crash at the front of the pack can suddenly wreak havoc. A Tour contender rider might suddenly face a choked road while his rival senses a big break. Suddenly, a minute or more might be lost, enough to give a rival those precious seconds he needs at the end in Paris.
"They will make for an interesting stage in July," Armstrong said. Even though he expects rivals like Alberto Contador to prepare well for the stage, testing it under the toughest competitive conditions like Sunday adds a different dimension.
"It is the best I've done here," said Armstrong, who has not raced the Tour of Flanders very often over the past 15 years. Then again, at his age he doesn't want to read too much into anything.
One thing was beyond doubt though. "Gaining. Gaining confidence," he said.