SNOWBASIN — Nicolas Lebrun's first triumph came when he pedaled past seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on a dirt road near Snowbasin Ski Resort.
"Passing Lance on the bike is something amazing," said the native of Digne, France, who won his second XTERRA USA Championship in three years with a time of 2:24:26. "It was the first victory of the day. I said to myself, 'Even if I don't win today, I passed Lance on the bike.' It was really, really good."
But Lebrun, who was in third place after the 1,500-meter swim and 28-kilometer mountain bike sections of the race, wasn't just looking for a moral victory Saturday at Snowbasin.
Armstrong was in fourth place after the mountain bike section, but ended up fifth overall with a time of 2:29:25. His participation brought out hundreds more spectators than usual, as well as a lot more media attention. Both Armstrong and Lebrun trailed reigning world champion and U.S. champion Conrad Stoltz, as well as eighth-ranked Dan Hugo.
Lebrun said he pushed himself on the brutal 9.65-kilometer trail run, where he overtook both Hugo and Stoltz.
"I had some good splits on the run, so I could slow down and don't kill myself," he said laughing. "When I took the lead, I had to finish and try not to push too hard. With the altitude, it's hard to find a good pace. If you go a bit too far, you can really crash."
Colorado's Jossiah Middaugh, who finished third but was a favorite to win Saturday's championship, ran into some misfortune on the bike ride, which came in the form of a flat tire.
"The tire just went soft," said Middaugh, who earned a time of 2:25:37 and was the first American to finish. "It had been going soft the whole downhill. I think it went flat near the top. probably about where I hit this rock that came up and got me."
He looked down at a bloody gash just below his left knee.
"At the bottom of the downhill, I stopped and added air so I could see where the hole was," he said. "The slash in the sidewall was so big, I didn't know if it would take a tube. I think if I would have changed the tire, I would have lost more time."
The extra air lasted about another half mile and then he ran the bike about a mile to the finish. Then he left the bike in transition and took off on the trail run, where he passed Armstrong and Stoltz.
"I got to pass Lance twice," said Middaugh smiling. "Once on the bike, and then he passed me when I had the flat, and then on the run."
Hugo finished second with a time of 2:24:50 and was disappointed not to earn the win after leading most of the race.
Lebrun said he caught Hugo about four miles in, then just tried to run the smartest race he could.
Armstrong said he enjoyed the race, although he wouldn't quite commit to competing in the off-road triathlons again.
"I'd probably do another one," he said cracking a slight smile. "Now's not the time to ask."
He said he was nervous about Saturday's race, despite knowing he wouldn't win after two decades out of the sport.
"I was just going to go out and do my best, and I knew it was going to be awkward," he said of adjusting to three disciplines in the same contest. "I didn't know that some things would be as awkward as they were. The swim to bike transition was very tough. Shifting from an upper-body exercise to a lower one is an adjustment."
When asked about the course, he smiled again.
"Two things — one, it's an altitude race," he said. "Which, of course, is hard for anybody but some excel while others don't. And it's a hard course. There is a lot of climbing on the bike, a lot of climbing on the run, a cold swim. It was very, very hard."
Melanie McQuaid of Canada won the women's championship for the fourth straight year. She earned a time of 2:43:00 and said she eased up on the run after catching some of the male pro athletes.
"When I caught Tim DeBoom, I knew I was climbing pretty good today and this run is actually quite sketchy, so I was quite cautious," she said.
Unlike the male winners, she did not have an opportunity to pass Lance.
"I was never near Lance," she said, laughing. "He has his own thing going on. It was easy to find open space because everyone was sort of huddled around him. Probably the smoothest swim start I've ever had by avoiding Lance."
Lesley Paterson of Scotland placed second for the second consecutive year. Her finishing time was 2:45:59. Danelle Kabush was third (2:47:43), followed by Kelley Cullen (2:49:24) and Emma Garrard in fifth (2:52:01).