By Anthony Paone
VENERQUE, France (Reuters) - Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong made a low key return to the Tour de France on Thursday when the American cancer survivor set off on a charity ride that follows the route of this year's race.
Dozens of journalists were in attendance at a supermarket car park in southern France ahead of the 43-year-old's ride to Rodez, but no fans were there to greet the Texan.
Armstrong, who was stripped of the seven Tour titles he won from 1999-2005 after admitting to doping following years of denials, is taking part in Geoff Thomas's 'One Day Ahead' charity event.
The American joins former England footballer Thomas and a team of amateurs, who are aiming to raise one million pounds ($1.56 million) for Cure Leukaemia by cycling the route of two stages a day before the official peloton passes through.
Asked what kind of reception he was expecting from French fans, Armstrong said: "I don't know... all I know is this is a frenzy. But if I compare this experience to going to dinner in Toulouse last night with local people, it's very different.
"People are always very nice, I respect it and I appreciate that and I enjoy being here."
While Armstrong is riding to Rodez, the Tour de France peloton will embark on a punishing mountain stage that culminates with a climb up to the Plateau de Beille.
Briton Chris Froome leads after 11 of the 21 stages, the 2013 winner almost three minutes clear of nearest challenger Tejay van Garderen of the United States.
The Team Sky rider, whose performances have raised a few eyebrows in a sport tainted by multiple doping scandals, battled through a tricky first week to take control of the race once it reached the high mountains.
After Froome and his support riders humiliated everyone but Nairo Quintana of his main rivals in Tuesday's 10th stage, Armstrong took to Twitter to voice his views.
"Clearly Froome/Porte/Sky are very strong. Too strong to be clean? Don't ask me, I have no clue," Armstrong said of Froome and team mate Richie Porte after they finished first and second in the first stage in the Pyrenees.
Armstrong remained neutral when asked to comment on Froome's performances on Thursday.
"It's not my job to give my opinion about that, I watch the race just like everybody," he said.
"I think it's the first time in a couple of years I have watched the race and it's been an interesting first week with obviously a lot of dramas in the race, crashes, wind, things like this.
"Chris Froome had been avoiding all the problems. Of course he's leading the Tour by three minutes, it's impressive."
(Writing by Julien Pretot; Editing by John O'Brien)