ALPI DI SIUSI, Italy -- Lance Armstrong is still a long way from regaining the form that won him a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles.
The Texan finished nearly three minutes behind the leaders in the grueling uphill finish that concluded the fifth stage of his first Giro d'Italia on Wednesday. Armstrong dropped from sixth to 22nd overall, 3 minutes, 34 seconds behind new race leader Danilo Di Luca.
"I knew that we would be behind so we just had to ride our tempo and limit the losses," Armstrong said. "I thought maybe two minutes and it's closer to three, but that's OK."
Armstrong returned this season after 3½ years of retirement and broke his collarbone in March, putting him on the sideline again.
"As I said at the beginning, the first half of the Giro is not going to be my half. I've got to ride into the race and still get my condition back after the accident," Armstrong said. "I can't expect to be at the front.
"I didn't come in with any big illusions. I knew that I would be minutes behind the best guys," Armstrong said. "The key is to ride within your limits, so that when you get dropped you find your threshold and hold it there. We'll see what happens in the second half of the Giro."
Denis Menchov sprinted away from a select group of riders and held off Di Luca in a sprint for the stage victory in this ski resort in the heart of the Dolomite range.
Menchov, a Russian rider for the Rabobank team, covered the 77.68-mile leg that began in San Martino di Castrozza in 3 hours, 15 minutes, 24 seconds.
While most of the stage was downhill, it ended with a 15.5-mile climb.
"To win here it was very important. I didn't know the summit. The last 300 meters were very hard, everyone was just as tired and I just didn't have fear," said Menchov, a two-time Spanish Vuelta champion. "I'm in better form than last year."
Di Luca, an Italian with the LPR team, finished two seconds behind and took the race lead from Sweden's Thomas Lovkvist, who crossed third, five seconds back.
Overall race favorite Ivan Basso set the pace for most of the climb and finished fourth, also five seconds back. Armstrong's Astana teammates Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner finished fifth and sixth, respectively, both nine seconds behind the leader.
Armstrong crossed 35th, 2:58 behind Menchov.
In the overall standings, Di Luca holds a five-second lead on Lovkvist. Leipheimer is fourth and Horner is eighth.
"Levi is one of the real favorites," Armstrong said. "If I were one of the Italian guys or the favorites, I wouldn't sleep well the night before the Cinque Terre time trial."
The toughest part of the climb came in the final 6.2 miles, and Armstrong lost contact with the leaders 3.7 miles from the finish. Three Astana teammates -- Janez Brajkovic, Daniel Navarro Garcia and Jose Luis Rubiera -- stayed back and helped him avoid losing even more time.
"In all the years in the past, I would never have done climbs like this in May," Armstrong said. "At this time of year, I would be doing training camps. So I can't expect that May would ever feel any different, especially after the crash. My buildup is always a little more steady and mercurial.
"I'm pleased with where we are. If I could have woken up this morning, snapped my finger and ridden away from everybody, I would have done that. I would like that, but it's not realistic in 2009 and it wasn't realistic in 2001, either."
Two other overall favorites -- two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni and 2004 champion Damiano Cunego -- also lost time on the climb. Simoni finished 47 seconds behind Menchov and Cunego crossed 2:39 later. Stefano Garzelli, the 2000 Giro winner, was behind Armstrong -- 5:24 off the pace.
The next several stages pass through rolling terrain without any serious climbing. The race crosses into Austria on Thursday and ends May 31 in Rome.