Thousands gathered in downtown Newton Wednesday night to see and hear Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner who’s biking a couple of days on this year’s RAGBRAI — the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

Lance Armstrong arrived in Iowa mid-day Wednesday and rode part of the RAGBRAI route. He stopped off for a beer, then made his way on-stage in Newton’s downtown at about a quarter past eight. “So this is RAGBRAI,” Armstrong said, to cheers and applause from the crowd of riders and other on-lookers. “I wasted all those Julys in France.”

Armstrong earned an even bigger roar from the crowd when he made a promise about next July. “I’m promising next year my rear tire is starting on the west,” Armstrong said, referring to the RAGBRAI riders’ tradition of dipping their tire in the Missouri River when they start the seven-day ride. The tradition also calls for dipping the front tire in the Mississippi at the conclusion. “I guess I’d better do it,” Armstrong said as the crowd roared its approval. “And the front tire is ending on the east,” Armstrong declared. “Can I get registered now?”

Armstrong saluted the traditions of RAGBRAI, which is celebrating its 33rd year. “Obviously I’ve heard a lot about this event and about the people and about just the interesting nature of what RAGBRAI means,” Armstrong said, before being interrupted by a man in the crowd who yelled “What took you so long?” Armstrong replied: “I’ve been busy, man.”

Armstrong said he’d heard about the “miles and miles” of people biking the RAGBRAI route, and the pies that are sold in the small towns along the way. “I wasn’t prepared for the humidity,” Armstrong said. “I came from Texas where I thought it was humid. I stepped off the plane and said ‘What is this? This is like Houston.'”

Armstrong’s speech was often interrupted by screaming fans who said things like “I love you” and during one such interruption he smiled in the general direction of the screamer, said “quit,” and laughed.

“It’s been an amazing day,” Armstrong continued, praising the reception he received from fellow riders and the host communities. Many in last night’s crowd were standing inside the beer garden set up in downtown Newton — and Armstrong asked the crowd where the good parties were in Newton. “How can you ride for six days and party at night?” Armstrong asked. There’s a 100-mile route for some ambitious RAGBRAI riders today, but Armstrong told the crowd he’s opting for the less-circuitous 77-mile route from Newton to Marengo.

The governor has declared today “Livestrong, Iowa” Day and is encouraging Iowans to wear yellow in support of Armstrong and other cancer survivors. “This is my 10 year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis,” Armstrong said. “I feel really blessed to be on this side of it, to be 10 years out and — knock on wood — to have another 10 or 20 or 50 years.”

On Friday, Armstrong will participate in a U.S. Senate field hearing in Iowa City to discuss increasing federal funding for cancer research. “You know I tell people all the time: what could be bigger than seven tours? Very easy answer: curing cancer,” Armstrong said.
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