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The Fans’ View: Updated
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 6/25/2002
The Fans’ View: Updated
 

Editor's Note: We welcome this interesting preview of the Tour de France by our newest occasional contributor, Locutus.

For the last two years, the big question on everyone's mind leading up to the Tour de France has been, "How fat will Ullrich be?" And the answer both years has been, "Not very fat at all." While he certainly had problems staying slim in the off-season, Jan "der Torte Esser" had the goods when it counted in July. His form would have been good enough to dominate both Tours if it hadn't been for that pesky Texan. We've seen some epic heavyweight slugfests on the roads of France over the last two years as the Texan and "der Torte Esser" have thrown at one another everything that they and their teams could muster. In the end Armstrong prevailed, twice, but not before a number of epic moments: Hautacam. The Bluff. The Look. The Cartwheel. Armstrong has been great, but his struggle to overcome the magnificent German has elevated him to legendary status. And so now, this year, we have to face the aftermath of a legend. Why? Because big Jan won't be at the big party. Plagued by a bum knee, a problem he developed while pedaling away from the pies in the off-season, the mighty Jan must skip the race he has made so interesting.

The Challengers are Irrelevant.
And so this year, the big question on everyone's mind has been a little different. Rather than worrying about the pie problem, we've been wondering, "Which rider will have the best vantage point for watching Lance's ass when he rides off into the distance?" While there is an entire peloton of extremely talented riders, Armstrong has developed an aura of meticulous, inevitable invincibility since his first Tour victory in 1999. With the only man who truly challenged him out of the race, a sense of despair has settled over the cycling world. Lance's win will be routine, we fear, so dominant that not even Phil, Paul, and Bob can make it interesting. Looking at the results for this season makes it worse, as U.S. Postal seems stronger than ever in spite of losing both Tyler Hamilton and Levy Leipheimer. Put aside Lance's strong performances in the Spring Classics, and his convincing wins at the Midi Libre and the Dauphiné Libéré. What causes deeper despair is the dominance this year of those men who will march him through the mountains, fly with him through the flats, and chase down and assimilate anyone who tries to challenge him.

A few U.S. Postal highlights from the 2002 season so far: Victor Hugo Peña returned to his winning ways with a victory at the Tour of Murcia in March. George Hincapie was the best-looking bridesmaid at countless races in the Spring; though he didn't win anything, he looked like a champion even when sliding into a ditch at Paris-Roubaix. He carried his form into June, making the final break at the First Union USPRO Championships and wearing the leader's jersey for a day during the Volta a Catalunya. Postal riders held the leader's jersey the entire race, with Roberto Heras leading them to victory in the Team Time Trial and the final GC. Floyd Landis continued his string of excellent results by riding to a strong second (behind Armstrong) at the Dauphiné Libéré while Chann McRae won the USPRO Champion's jersey in Philadelphia...and McRae didn't even make this year's Tour team. Postal's powerhouse domestiques Pavel Padrnos, Jose Luis Rubiera, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Benoit Joichim have helped Postal dominate the peloton in every race they've ridden recently. And all this from a team that is designed to peak in France during July.

This feeling that the Tour may not be competitive has been greatly exacerbated by the thinning list of possible contenders for Lance's crown. Stefano Garzelli's bizarre positive test for gout medication sidelined him for the Giro and the Tour. Gilberto Simoni seems to have exchanged his Grand Tours this year for a bag of magic candies. Tyler Hamilton's shoulder injury en route to his podium finish at the Giro has put his Tour preparations in a sling. And as for "Scarecrow" Casagrande, well, let's just say his team has grounded him. Factor in the absence of Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli--whose Italian Index-Alexia team wasn't invited so that more French teams can watch Lance's ass--and the prospects for an exciting tour look even more bleak. To top it all off, meaty Mario Cipollini and his wild zebra-men won't be there to liven up the sprints as they, too, were not invited...again to make room for more French ass-watchers.

Who will resist?
So what will be worth watching about this year's Tour de France? Will the race be overrun with ass-watchers, or will there be enough quality teams and riders to actually make it exciting? One French wildcard team that will certainly liven up the race is Credit Agricole. As the only French wildcard team that can match the caliber of uninvited teams like Acqua e Sapone and Team Coast, Credit Agricole should make a huge impact in every aspect of the race. With new addition and perennial GC threat Christophe Moreau fresh off a podium finish at the Dauphiné Libéré, Credit Agricole look poised to make their first serious charge at the podium in Paris. In addition, Credit Agricole also boasts the "Red Thunder from Down Under," Stuart O'Grady. Last year O'Grady went toe to toe with six time Green Jersey winner Erik Zabel, with the outcome not decided until the final sprint on the Champs Élysees. "Red Thunder" has shown good form recently, going well in the Tour de Picardie and Tour of Germany, but in the latter race he again seemed to be a wheel slower than Zabel at the finish line. Last year he countered this through a series of well-executed breakaways. That will prove much more difficult to do this year for two reasons: 1) With Moreau on his team, Credit Agricole will have their energies divided, and don't bet that CA will support O'Grady at the expense of the only real French GC contender; 2) Without Ullrich, Telekom will focus all their might on getting Zabel another Green Jersey, which means that unlike last year, Zabel's pink posse will chase down O'Grady every time he tries to go off the front. Still, O'Grady has shown his toughness and ingenuity time and again in the Tour, and he looks ready to make Zabel's life hell all the way to Paris.

Despite the absence of Cipollini, the sprints will likely be the most competitive aspect of the race this year, and not just because of the latest round of the Zabel-O'Grady battle. Mapei will bring the 1-2 punch of Oscar Freire and the now-healthy Tom Steels, who will be looking to repeat his two stage victories from 2000. Lotto will bring resurgent Aussie "Rabid" Robbie McEwen, who gave Cipollini fits during the first half of the Giro en route to two stage victories. The lingering injury to Romans Vainstains will mean that Domo's go-to guy in the sprints should be Milan-San Remo runner-up, "California" Freddy Rodriguez. A good chance for many of the minor French teams to avoid ass-watching will also come in the sprints: AG2r will bring Estonian Jaan "Bless You" Kirsipuu; FDJeux.com will likely bring a fleet of riders who can sprint, including Jimmy Casper; and Bonjour will bring Damien Nazon, who had a number of top-5 finishes last year. Throw in Lampre's Jan Svorada, Taconni's Andrej Hauptmann, and Fassa's Marco Zanotti, and it looks like the flats will be alive with the clashing of elbows and the throwing of bikes at the line.

The great antagonists of the sprinters, of course, are the breakaway men. Last year's French hero Laurent Jalabert of CSC-Tiscali will look to repeat his stage victories, as well as defend his Polka-Dot Jersey title from the likes of His Royal Majesty, "King" Richard Virenque of Domo. Rabobank's Erik Dekker, who has won four stages in the last two Tours, should be a threat if he can recover from his crash at Milan-San Remo in time to make the start in Luxembourg. Other stage winners from 2001 who will be returning to look for more breakaway gold include Lotto's superman Rik Verbrugghe and Credit Agricole's iron-lunged Jens Voigt. There are also a few riders from the inferior French teams whose attacking styles should raise them above the status of ass-watchers. While the synaptically challenged "Wacky" Jacky Durand gets a lot of press, his FDJeux.com teammate "Mad" Bradley McGee from Down Under is a much more talented rider who showed last year that he can make the long breaks as well as compete in the shorter time trials. Didier Rous of Bonjour is a quality rider who will force the pace on the flats, and who can win a stage if not ordered to work for sprinter Nazon. Likewise, there are a couple dozen other outstanding riders, such as Telekom's Alexandre Vinokourov (if he recovers from his Tour de Suisse crash) and Lampre's Ludo Dierckxsens, who are capable of powering away for a victory if allowed to by their team tactics.

The race for the Yellow Jersey will be decided as usual in the time trials and the mountains. The short opening prologue in Luxembourg should go to a specialist like Verbrugghe, McGee, Cofidis' Briton David Millar, or Mapei's Laszlo Bodrogi. A GC contender could also snatch the Yellow on the first day as the bug-tasting Moreau did last year. But the real race will start to take shape in the 67.5 km team time trial from Epernay to Château-Thierry on Stage 4, where last year's TTT winner Credit Agricole will try to hold off the powerhouse U.S. Postal and ONCE squads. With a good performance, the ONCEs should establish themselves as the major threat to Armstrong's reign. Led by two-time podium finisher Joseba Beloki and recent Tour of Germany winner Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, the ONCEs clearly think of themselves as Armstrong's principal rivals. In numerous recent interviews, they have talked of how Miguel Indurain faltered under the onslaught of Bjarne Riis and a young Jan Ullrich in 1996. Throughout the mountain stages, as teams like Kelme and Euskaltel make their bids for stage wins, ONCE will likely have at it with U.S. Postal and Credit Agricole. Given the form demonstrated by the main GC contenders recently, it will take a special ride for a climber to avoid getting swept up by Armstrong, Heras, Beloki, Gonzalez de Galdeano, and Moreau as they battle for the Yellow Jersey. ONCE in particular have shown through several key wins this season that they have the form, the motivation, and the tactical savvy to topple the titanic Texan.

Other men who could make a difference in the Tour include Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer, the former Postie who'd had a quiet season until his recent win at the Route de Sud. Leipheimer will likely struggle to keep contact with the leaders in the high mountains, but his talent in the time trials make him a threat for a top-5 finish. If Kelme can resolve their financial problems and overcome the subsequent drop in team morale, time-trial assassin Santiago Botero and young climber Oscar Sevilla could make a lot of noise. The pair recently rode to a 1-2 finish at the Classique des Alpes, and Botero bested Armstrong in the time-trial of the Dauphiné Libéré. While Sevilla had to abandon the Dauphiné due to a crash, the pair look ready to rumble...even if they line up with a different team on July 6. Tyler Hamilton of CSC-Tiscali will come to the Tour without any racing or hard training since the Giro, but if the man from Marblehead can hang tough through the first week, he could be a major player in the time trials and the mountains in the last two weeks of the race. After a year of frustration with Fassa Bortolo, Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas has shown good results recently with his new Lampre squad, finishing well in several stages of the Volta a Catalunya. If he can limit his losses in the time-trials, he could surprise a lot of people in July.

Is Resistance Futile?
Despite the absence of Ullrich, there are a number of very talented riders coming to the Tour in good form. However, Lance Armstrong is a great champion who is in his prime, at the top of his form, and surrounded by a team full of champions. No one is invincible, as Armstrong himself has often noted, but barring accident, illness, or injury, Lance is the heavy favorite this year, poised to beat Greg Lemond's official all-time record of three Tour wins by an American (we're not counting that unofficial win Lemond handed to Bernard Hinault). As this Tour approaches, we wonder if the ONCEs can live up to their talk. We wait for challengers to step into the void left by Ullrich, and we fear that no serious challengers will emerge. However, we also have good reason to hope that several challengers will emerge, and that there will be more than a bunch of ass-watching in this year's Tour de France.

Locutus
Los Angeles, California
locutus_armstrong@hotmail.com


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