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The Calm Before the Storm
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 7/5/2002
The Calm Before the Storm

By Locutus

On the day before the 2002 Tour de France begins in Luxembourg, a variety of questions compete for our attention. I've already covered many of these questions (see my early Tour preview here). However, in this final week, while the anxiety builds and everyone is spinning their wheels waiting for the race to start, a pack of new subplots have emerged for this most important month in professional cycling.

Question 1) What the hell is going on in Jan Ullrich's head? Can we now look back at the days when we smiled over Ullrich's off-season indulgence in good food as a naive precursor to more serious problems with impulse control? The biggest non-starter of this year's Tour has cast a new shadow over the race he has made so exciting for the last few years, as it was announced this week that he has tested non-negative for amphetamines during an out-of-competition drug test (see story here). Taken with his recent car crash while under the influence of the fermented grapes, it is clear that Jan is having a difficult time handling his knee injury and has possibly turned to controlled substances as a way to cope. As that master of impaired judgement Jean-Marie Leblanc noted, Ullrich's substance abuse is obviously not related to enhancing his performance. Like Gilberto Simoni--who had two non-negative tests for cocaine earlier this season--Ullrich has now been stigmatized as a recreational drug user, something that is sure to anger his sponsors and his fans. The management of Team Telekom has already clashed with Ullrich for his irresponsible behavior once this season, so how will they react to this new problem for the big German with the big appetites? The Tour is traditionally a time when Team Directors woo desired riders for the following season. So will Walter Godefroot use the Tour as an opportunity to go after a new team leader? It would be difficult for Telekom to find a more talented rider, especially one from their home country of Germany, but Godefroot and the team management now have to make some tough decisions before this new situation spins out of control. Hopefully, Ullrich can turn his life around and screw his head on straight in time to save his brilliant career.

Question 2) And speaking of failed drug Jean-Marie Leblanc high? Is he really going to let AG2r and Jean Delatour ride the Tour despite the fact that they are both inferior teams who have had riders test positive for drugs recently? How can he justify the exclusion of Saeco, who still boasts riders of the caliber of Danilo Di Luca and recent Italian road champion Salvatore Commesso? And what about Team Coast? They are stacked with talent and experience, and only U.S. Postal and Once can match their quality wins recently. While it is highly doubtful that Leblanc is a drug-user, his recent decisions sound like those of a man who has taken one too many bong-hits.

Question 3) What will become of the Mapei riders? With the recent announcement by Mapei that they will not continue as a major sponsor next year, many of the Mapei boys will be using the Tour and the Vuelta to find new homes. Two of their riders for the Tour--South African sprinter Robbie Hunter and Hungarian time-trialist Laszlo Bodrogi--are reportedly being pursued by Armstrong's U.S. Postal squad. How will these young riders respond to the pressure to impress their new suitors? Super-sprinter Tom Steels is out to convince Quick-Step, the Belgian sponsor of the Mapei squad, to keep their Belgian riders and form a new team. Will Steels continue his powerful comeback, and prove successful enough to get his wish? There are also questions surrounding many of the Mapei riders who will not be in the Tour. What will become of Stefano Garzelli, a stellar talent taken down by that bizarre positive for Gout medication during the Giro? And who will be able to snatch up rising Australian sensation Cadel Evans? Postal is also rumored to be pursuing Italian rider Daniele Nardello, a strong all-around rider who could contribute in both the Classics and the Grand Tours. With their deep stock of talent, the breakup of Mapei could prove a huge boon to several teams for next year.

Question 4) What the hell is going on in Jan Ullrich's head? Dude!

Question 5) "California" Fred Rodriguez is in the last year of his contract with Domo, and he enters the Tour this year as their clear leader in the sprints. Rodriguez has had an outstanding season, and looks ready to emerge as a major force in the European peloton. Will Domo finally give him the support that his talents so richly deserve? Fred has shown time and again that he can compete in the big sprints without a lot of help...see his 2nd place finish at Milan-San Remo this year for proof of that. He also has the legs to hang on the smaller climbs, and seems to have skills comparable to those of Telekom's Eric Zabel. If properly supported, "California" Freddy is capable of shocking both Zabel and Credit Agricole's Stuart O'Grady by taking the Green Jersey. But if the past is any indication, Domo will likely leave him to his own devices. With any luck, he'll ride well enough to impress a team that will pay him what he's worth, and give him the support he needs to become a superstar for the future.

Question 6) Why do cycling analysts like to make predictions about a race that is determined largely by luck and laboratory tests? Because we're idiots who aren't satisfied by simply embarrassing ourselves in Fabio's fantasy cycling competitions (like I did during the Giro). With this in mind, here are my (idiotic) predictions for this year's Tour:

The Yellow Jersey:

1) Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal Service. By a lot. He'll destroy everyone in the mountains during the last week, and finish it off with a victory in the final time-trial.

2) Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE-Eroski. He'll push Armstrong, especially in the time-trials, but will lose too much time in the deep mountains during the last week.

3) Levi Leipheimer, Rabobank. He'll push de Galdeano for First Ass-Watcher, but will miss out by a chunk of seconds that he'll lose in the mountains. If he finds a new gear going uphill, he could win it all.

4) Christophe Moreau, Credit Agricole. Not much will separate positions 2-4, but Moreau will lose key seconds in the longer time-trials to de Galdeano and Leipheimer. If only his tongue were more aerodynamic....

5) Oscar Sevilla, Kelme-Costa Blanca. His time-trialing is improving, but he's not yet at the caliber of the riders I've put above him. Deadly on the climbs...if he ever masters that time-trialing, he'll smoke everyone.

Others to Watch:

* Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski. If he starts strong, he could take a podium position again. However, look for him to show his class by riding for his better-positioned teammate de Galdeano, who will return the favor during the Vuelta.

* Tyler Hamilton, CSC-Tiscali. If he can avoid crashes (big "if") and losing time in the first ten days, look for Tyler to overcome his lack of training since the Giro and scare the crap out of everyone, including Armstrong. If he does lose too much time early, look for a stage win during the last week.


The Green Jersey:

1) Eric Zabel, Team Telekom. His team has nothing better to do this year, so they are going all out for the Green Jersey. They will be especially motivated to erase the embarrassment of Ullrich's recent escapades.

2) Fred Rodriguez, Domo-Farm Frites. As I mentioned above, he'll win it if Domo supports him. More than likely, they'll waste energy on His Royal Majesty, "King" Richard Virenque. But Fred will quietly show his talent, win a stage or two, and give Zabel and O'Grady everything they can handle.

3) Stuart O'Grady, Credit Agricole. The "Red Thunder from Down Under" will ride with his trademark toughness and intelligence, and might out-fox them all. But he will suffer from his team's support of Moreau.

Others to Watch:

*"Rabid" Robbie McEwen, Lotto. He'll be going for stage wins, but he's hot and has the ability to challenge for the Green Jersey if he wants it. His win on the Champs-Elys‚es in '99 also showed that he can go the distance.

*Damien Nazon, Bonjour. He's a good sprinter, but doesn't have the strong team like Zabel or the resistance of Rodriguez and O'Grady.

*Oscar Freire, Mapei-Quick Step. Also looking to impress a new team. He says he's not in good form, but he could be playing possum. If Steels doesn't have it, look for Freire to put a scare into the rest.


The Polka-Dot Jersey

1) Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca. He won it in 2000, and his recent win at the Classique des Alpes shows he has the form to do it again. Now that his team's financial problems are solved, look for Botero and his teammates to storm the slopes.

2) Laurent Jalabert, CSC-Tiscali. He will ride well, but he can't climb with the likes of Botero anymore.

3) Denis Menchov, The talented young man who won the climb up Mont Ventoux in the recent Dauphin‚ Lib‚r‚ will surprise people in the mountains this year.

Others to Watch:

*Haimar Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi. This talented rider could threaten Botero if his team lets him loose.

*Richard Virenque, Domo-Farm Frites. Watch "King" Richard as he flies off the front on the climbs to grab TV time and look like an attacking hero. Then watch him bonk and get passed by more talented riders when the climbs get really tough.

Stage Winners

Look for the following riders to come to the front and win at least one stage:

*Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal. He'll win at least two stages, probably more.

*Erik Zabel, Team Telekom. He'll win at least one sprint because of his team support, but will be hard pressed by a quality field of sprinters.

*Robbie McEwen, Lotto. If he's still hot, he could win three or four stages.

*Tom Steels, Mapei-Quick Step. He's baaaaack. But he won't be there after Stage 11.

*Fred Rodriguez, Domo-Farm Frites. His time at Domo has taught him how to win in a number of different ways.

*Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca. Whether it's in a time-trial or a mountain stage, he'll deliver.

*"Mad" Bradley McGee, Also a double threat; if he doesn't win the prologue, look for him to finally win from a small group on a long breakaway.


There. Now I've said it. So in three-and-a-half weeks, we can look back at this and laugh at what an idiot I am.

Los Angeles

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