|Last Saturday my friend Bruce asked me about the possibility of an all American podium at the Tour. No doubt Lance Armstrong is the number one contender and everyone else will be racing for second if Lance shows up with the same form he had the last three years, and the truth is, judging from the Dauphnie and Midi Libre, things are looking good for the man from Austin.
And that brings us to the next two podium spots. The dilemma starts with Bobby Julich. After his third place in 1998, we haven't heard much from him. During one of the mountain stages of the '98 Tour, Julich commented "This is what is all about", minutes after he had Ullrich in some difficulty, but instead of attacking, Julich decided to sit and wait, since he had a teammate up the road. His own teammate, Kevin Livingston admitted that, "Cofidis has more guys than Telekom on the climbs", but yet, Julich seemed happy with just staying on the German's wheel, and instead of taking the race to Ullrich, the Cofidis leader chose to conserve his third place. He lost the chance of a lifetime and that's why I don't think he will place anywhere near the top ten, because of the lack of aggression.
Levi Leipheimer's ride at the Vuelta last year has been well documented. His move to Rabobank was not a surprise, since the Dutch team was in need of a GC rider for the grand tours. Signing a big contract also brings huge responsibilities and after all the dinning and wining, Rabobank's directors started to put pressure on their new leader. And here is where the problem may start for the American. He just won the Route du Sud, but in cycling, "you are as good as your last race", and for Levi, the Tour is where Rabobank wants its name to show. Not having had to deal with the responsibilities of the leadership of a team as big as Rabobank, Levi's chances at the Tour will depend on how he handles the pressure. A top 15 is possible.
CSC-Tiscali is taking the same approach ONCE took back in the mid 90's. Bring several riders who can challenge the main contender. And as Bjarne Riis knows from his own experience, this could be a double edge sword. During the Tour in the mid 90's, the Gewiss-Ballan manager decided to divide the team into two groups. One supporting Evgeni Berzin and the other supporting Riis. Berzin couldn't cope with the mountains and Riis, gave it his all, but still had to wait before winning the race. Now, as the man behind the wheel of the Danish team, Riis has given Hamilton, Sastre and Jalabert leadership roles. Hamilton proved during the Giro that he has what it takes, but may be a little under raced after having taken a break due to his injuries sustained at the Italian race and may have to return the favor to Carlos Sastre, who did a magnificent job supporting him. Jalabert will probably go for stages, since the Polka Dot jersey may be out of his reach this year. If Sastre and Jalabert are out of contention and Tyler's form returns during the second week (and if he can keep the rubber side down!) expect CSC-Tiscali to rally behind their US rider. If recovered and with some form, Tyler is the only US rider who can challenge Lance. I think he could go as high as fifth place.
This bunch is who will cause Lance the most trouble. Although the smaller French teams will go for glory during the first ten days and Christope Moreau will be their only hope for a podium, the Spanish will hide in the peloton and wait for the high mountains to launch the attacks. There's not a true Spanish challenger. But Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Oscar Sevilla, Unai Osa and Colombian Santiago Botero could emerge as the leader of the Armada and maybe, just maybe, the Spanish teams will rally behind the new leader. It's a question of putting behind their differences and acting as a "Super" team. It can be done.
There are several young riders in the ranks who will eventually be considered as tour contenders. David Millar and Andrei Kivilev from Cofidis, Denis Menchov and Francisco Mancebo from iBanesto.com, Ivan Basso from Fassa Bortolo, Raimondas Rumsas from Lampre but they are lacking the experience that their older comrades have. Nonetheless, as Kivilev is proof, an unknown rider could come out of nowhere and shake the Tour de France.
My Top Ten
Obviously my number one pick is none other than Lance Armstrong. Here's how I see the rest of the top ten:
1. Lance Armstrong (USPS)
2. Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole)
3. Oscar Sevilla (Kelme)
4. Santiago Botero (Kelme)
5. Tyler Hamilton (CSC-Tiscali)
6. Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONCE)
7. Alexandre Vinokorouv (Telekom)
8. Joseba Beloki (ONCE)
9. David Millar (Cofidis)
10. Andrei Kivilev (Cofidis)
Green Jersey: Erik Zabel (Telekom)
Polka Dot: Richard Virenque (Domo-Farm Frites)