KAPALUA - Conrad Stoltz is as big a name as there is in the Xterra off-road triathlon series, but he welcomes the presence of the biggest star the sport has ever drawn.
The Xterra World Championship will mark its 16th running on Maui at Kapalua on Sunday after a 15-year run in South Maui.
Stoltz is the defending champion and a four-time winner of the event, but he, the other 675 competitors in the race and the tape-delayed television audience will be focused on Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong trains Wednesday in Kapalua on the Xterra World Championship course.
Lance Armstrong competes during the Xterra USA Championship last month in Utah.
"I don't think you can measure the value that Lance actually brings," Stoltz said Wednesday in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. "Just from the race in Utah, it was amazing to see the press coming and just seeing Xterra getting into the mainstream media. The course out there is in the middle of nowhere and normally there is hardly any people around and riding through the woods there was almost more cameras than trees."
Armstrong, 40, started in triathlon as a teen and came back to the sport last month at the Xterra USA Championship in Utah. Despite a fifth-place finish, his first triathlon in 22 years did not go well, by his standards. He decided to participate at the urging of lifelong friend Jimmy Riccitello, the winner of the first Xterra in Wailea in 1996 and part of Armstrong's support group this week.
"I didn't have any expectations in Utah, I didn't know exactly what I was getting into," Armstrong said. "I certainly hadn't trained for it, I had been too busy and then at the end of the day, I didn't really enjoy it because I suffered so much."
Armstrong brings more than just publicity, Stoltz said.
"The more press, the more sponsorship and TV the sport gets, it makes it easier for us to make a living from it, which is just amazing," Stoltz said.
Sunday's field for the 1-mile ocean swim, 18.3-mile mountain bike and 6.1-mile trail run has 12 Olympians, including 2008 gold medalist Jan Frodeno of Germany and two-time Ironman world champion Tim Deboom of Colorado.
The event starts at 9 a.m. at D.T. Fleming Beach, and the first finisher should reach the tape near the Ritz about 2 hours and 20 minutes later.
"Having Lance up there was amazing and what he brings to the sport is really cool," Stoltz said. "I think we are really lucky to have him and for him to think that our sport is cool and come try our sport is neat. The reason that I tried Xterra is because I was a road triathlete and I was getting kind of bored and I looked at it and I was like, 'That looks like fun, I want to give it a try.' That's the reason he is here and that is a good compliment for us."
Armstrong's training has been different after his experience in Utah.
"I thought, 'This is terrible, why would I want to go do this for when I am 40 years old?' I could be doing other things," Armstrong said. "I took a few days and thought about it and started training again and thought, 'Maybe I should at least focus on this, do some specific work, do some intensity, try to at least adapt to what the race is like."
Armstrong cleared his schedule, which includes running his Livestrong Foundation, recovered from a sinus condition and heel injury and cut back on his worldwide travel.
He likes Stoltz - a two-time Olympian for South Africa and winner of a record 42 races in the Xterra series, which reaches 15 states and 38 countries - as the favorite.
"People have to understand that this is the world championship, those guys have raised their games," said Armstrong, who event organizers said would not answer questions about doping allegations on Wednesday. "This is just me speaking as somebody who doesn't have any experience and no position of knowledge or background, but if the sea is rocking I think it is over for some guys. I am not a gambler, but I wouldn't bet against Conrad Stoltz."
Stoltz said Armstrong's finish in Utah was sensational.
"It is remarkable considering he hasn't done a triathlon in 23 years," Stoltz said. "I think he made a few small errors that he is going to fix and do better this race."
Armstrong didn't count himself out of the title chase.
"I will be happy going out there and giving it my best," he said. "Maybe that is top five, maybe it is top 10. It could be better, I don't know. That is why we have the race, so we can find out.
"I'd be really happy if I won it, so I guess that means I'd be surprised. Shocked is probably too big of a word, or too strong a word, but, yeah, I'd be very pleasantly surprised."
Armstrong has run sub-three-hour marathons twice in New York City and once in Boston since his last Tour de France win in 2005.
"I'm just a retired guy who likes to ride his bike," he said. "The vibe here is a little more laid-back, a little more relaxed, which is good for me. It is not like I'm jumping into full-distance Ironman in Kona for my first race where everybody wants to kill the guy next to them. Listen, if I didn't enjoy the training, the racing, being here, I wouldn't do it. Nobody's paying me to come here. Nobody is saying, 'You have to go there.' This is something I choose to do."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org