ham-gaze verb: 1) in cycling, the practice of watching other riders make the race; to sit on while other riders take off down the road. 2) the act of staying in the peloton and watching the "hams" of other riders in front of you. 3) the visual aspect of going off the back when other riders increase the tempo. noun: ham-gazer. synonyms: ass-watch, rear-view. antonyms: attack, hammer.
Like last year, I'm going to be writing Jambon reports of this year's Tour where I size up the ham-gazers and the golden hams from each stage. In addition to the daily race evaluations, Crazy Jane will contribute a daily honey-glazed ham report entitled "Jambons Délicieux" that will look at the lighter side of the Tour and size up the aesthetic appeal of the riders and their fashion. The reports will deliver the usual DP attention to both the drama and humor of the sport we love so much.
Also like last year, I'm going to begin my Jambon reports with a couple of previews where I make a fool out of myself: I'm going to give my idiotic predictions as to who will finish where in the major competitions of the race. Predictions of this sort are always silly, because as everyone knows, anything can happen in a three-week bike race. Illness and crashes can decimate a rider or a team and completely change the complexion of the race in a moment. Drug scandals can cripple the race and cul the favorites from the peloton (like in the 2002 Giro). Seemingly invincible riders can fade (as Indurain did during his bid for his 6th Tour victory), seeming unknowns can come out of nowhere and have the rides of their lives (as Rubens Bertogliati did last year), and underdogs can suddenly find the form to come out and win a Grand Tour (as Lance Armstrong did in 1999 and Aitor Gonzalez did in last year's Vuelta). This type of unpredictability is what makes cycling so exciting and what keeps us so enthralled with the Tour (except for the drug scandals…we could all do without the doping).
Still, it's fun to try to pick the winners and argue with our friends about how the race is going to unfold. This year the task is made even more difficult, as the most talented GC field in recent memory will gather in Paris to have a go in the 100th Tour de France. Whereas last year Armstrong had few serious challengers, this year there are more Grand Tour winners than you can shake a stick at: Jan Ullrich (Tour and Vuelta), Gilberto Simoni (Giro), Aitor Gonzalez (Vuelta), Stefano Garzelli (Giro), and Angel Casero (Vuelta) will all be there. Add to that US Postal's Armstrong (Tour) and Roberto Heras (Vuelta), and there will be a total of seven Grand Tour winners ready to rumble in the clockwise ramble around France. And that's just for starters. So how will it all turn out? How will it end? The hive mind has been working overtime, and here are the highly logical (and certainly flawed) conclusions from the Cube:
The General Classification
Other GC Contenders
- 1. Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong, United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor. Well, DUH! There's lots of talk after Lance's ride in the Dauphine Libere that he has lost a step, that he is getting old, that he is vulnerable, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe he has, and maybe he is, but he will still win this Tour. Why? Because even if he's lost a step (which I doubt), he was still a couple of steps above everyone else to begin with. This was evidenced in his victory in the Dauphine: on Stage 5 he crashed hard at 70kph, ripped up his arm and his calf and his ham on the right side, and he still finished the stage strong. The next day, Iban Mayo attacked like a lunatic on the feared Galibier and was only able to gain about 29" on Armstrong by the top of the climb. Lance was sore and aching from his crash, but he still caught Mayo on the other side of the mountain and reminded everyone that he is one of the world's best descenders. If anything, his ride in the Dauphine showed his strength, as he overcame fierce competition and strong attacks in spite of his hard crash to win comfortably. Lance is strong in the time trials, stronger on the climbs, and a demon on the descents. No other rider brings such all-around strength to the Tour, not even Ullrich (remember Jan's over-the-handlebar acrobatics on a descent a couple of years back?). "El Jefe" also brings with him the strongest and most unified team in the Tour. Even if Lance struggles, Heras and Beltran and Rubiera and Hincapie and Ekimov and Peña and Padrnos and Landis will be there to smack down the competition and lead him to the Yellow Jersey. It will take illness or a serious crash (more serious than the one in the Dauphine) to keep Armstrong from his fifth consecutive Tour victory.
- 2. Jan Ullrich, Team Bianchi. "RoboJan" has left the dance clubs and team troubles behind, and will come to the Tour in great form, having ridden well in the Tours of Germany and Switzerland in preparation. Ullrich has never gotten worse than 2nd in the Tour; he knows how to prepare for the race, he is an aggressive rider, and he has a monstrous engine. If it wasn't for Armstrong, Ullrich would probably be going for his fourth or fifth Tour victory this year. Ullrich doesn't have Armstrong's acceleration on the climbs and his descending skills are notoriously shaky, but the only major disadvantage "RoboJan" has going into this year's race is that his Bianchi team is not as strong as US Postal. This will lose him important time in the Team Time Trial, and limit his support on the climbs. But Jan has refound his climbing legs as he took 2nd on the biggest mountain stage in Switzerland, which should give the German fans on the side of road something to cheer for. Ullrich plays down his chances in the Tour, but that could just be smart psychology: Jan knows how trash talking motivates his Texan rival, so he is laying low and preparing to let his legs do the talking. Jan seems to have taken to heart the philosophy of the United States' 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that it was wise to "walk softly and carry a big stick." If Armstrong falters, look for Ullrich to take out his big stick and very quietly beat everyone with it until their legs are rubber and their lungs are burning for air.
- 3. Tyler "One-Armed Bandit" Hamilton, Team CSC. Tyler still has lots of doubters, which is hard for me to understand. I mean, in last year's Giro he came in 2nd on GC. Sure, the peloton was diminished as Simoni, Garzelli, and Casagrande all went down under scandalous circumstances. However, Tyler broke his arm (where his arm meets his shoulder) in a crash during the first week of that Giro. The broken arm was so fragile that he could barely even hold onto his handlebars, so he literally rode the last two-plus weeks of the Giro with one arm. Earlier this season he attacked hard to take home the Polka-Dot Jersey in Paris-Nice, and he followed this with brilliant victories in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Romandie. Under the tutelage of former Tour winner Bjarne Riis, Hamilton has stepped up a few levels since leaving Postal and is now ready for his move to the biggest podium in cycling. He was a bit sick and struggled in the Dauphine, but the Tour is his major focus of the season and you can bet that Riis will have him prepared and in peak form. Tyler seems to have a penchant for crashing, but like a superball, he has also shown a penchant for bouncing back from the pavement and flying off down the road afterwards (I did mention that he got 2nd in last year's Giro with a broken arm, didn't I?). Hamilton is that rare combination of a climber who can also fly in the time trials. In addition, his team is strong (especially in the TTT), so he will have a big advantage over many of his rivals. Doubt if you will, but "The One-Armed Bandit" will continue his great year with a powerful performance in the Tour.
- 4. Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo, Euskaltel-Euskadi. Last year, he finished the Tour over 2 hours behind Armstrong, but he rode well in the Alps. In the Vuelta, which was his main focus in 2002, Mayo came in 5th on GC only 5' 42" behind Aitor Gonzalez. This year, he came in 2nd in the Dauphine and he pushed Armstrong the whole way with dogged and effective attacks. He won two stages of the Dauphine and showed yet again that he can climb and time trial with the best. This is his contract year, and he will push hard for the podium in the Tour, but will come up just short. For now.
- 5. Gilberto Simoni, Saeco. He won the Giro and he has won a few things since the Giro, but it is highly unlikely he'll be able to maintain that level of form all the way through the Tour. Also, despite the great talent and the great racing in the Giro this year, this edition of the Tour will be much deeper with GC talent. Still, the "Mountain Monster" is an exceptional climber who will play a major role on the many uphill slogs. Unfortunately for Simoni, the men I've placed above him will bury him in the time trials.
- 6. Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski. Let's face it: Beloki has ridden the Tour the last few years like a man who is satisfied with the lower places on the podium. This has been a source of frustration for his fans as well as his detractors, as Beloki clearly has both the talent and the team to put pressure on Armstrong. Instead of attacking Lance, however, Joseba has sat on wheels most of the time and played it safe (except for that half-hammed attack on Venteux last year). Some blame his team manager, Manolo Saiz, who seems more interested in putting several men in the top ten rather than one man at the top of the podium. Some say Beloki himself has never learned that old cycling truism that says you have to risk losing if you want to win. Whichever is the case, Beloki will have to learn to attack if he wants to stay near the top of the GC this year. All the men I've put above him are attacking animals with champion mentalities, something Beloki has yet to demonstrate in his career thus far. If he learns to attack, Beloki will finish higher than sixth…he certainly has the talent to finish on the podium again. But it will take a major change in both his mentality and his team's tactics for him finally to ride to his full potential. Andy thinks that Beloki has finally made this change; I hope he's right, but I'm not convinced yet.
- 7. Francisco Mancebo, iBanesto.com. He spanked everyone in the Classique des Alpes, and rode a strong Dauphine coming in 4th at 4' 35" behind Armstrong. His team is stocked full of strong climbers who should be able to help keep their leader in contention and out of trouble throughout the mountains. He was also 7th on GC in last year's Tour, and he will repeat that performance this year against a much stronger field. He will lose a chunk of time in the time trials, however, especially the team time trial. If he can limit his losses in the time trials, he could climb even further up the GC.
- 8. David Millar, Cofidis. Uh-oh. Millar has finally learned how to climb. The perennial threat in the time trials showed in the Dauphine that he can hold his own with the best in the world on the mountains as he came in 3rd on GC at 2' 47" behind Armstrong. He climbed better than Moreau, and was a flat tire away from challenging Mayo for the 2nd spot on the podium. He still won't be able to threaten men like Armstrong and Ullrich on the climbs, but he has improved enough to break the top ten on GC if his form holds. If he continues to improve, he could even end up cracking the top five.
- 9. Christophe "Bug-Taster" Moreau, Credit Agricole. The Frenchman has returned to his open-mouthed, air-gulping best this year, as he won the Four Days of Dunkirk and turned in a great showing in the Dauphine Libere. Last year's Tour was a disaster for the great French hope, as he crashed more than a fifty-dollar computer before finally pulling out of the race. He also lost his cool and took an unprovoked poke at Carlos Sastre. If Moreau can hold his temper and continue to improve his form, he could move up to challenge for a podium position.
- 10. Roberto Heras, United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor. If anything should happen to Lance, the "Flyweight Flyer" is fully capable of leading the BlueBerry Boys into the Yellow Jersey in Paris. He recently took 2nd in the Volta a Catalunya, and looks to be in fine form for another Tour-Vuelta run. He is weak in the flat time-trials, but his strength in the mountains will gain him huge chunks of time against most of his rivals (as will riding with Postal in the TTT). He will lead Lance up to the last few kilometers of the biggest climbs and then pull off, as usual. While doing this, he should take enough time to finish in the top ten of the race like he did last year.
- Levy Leipheimer, Rabobank. He hasn't shown the form he had last year heading into the Tour. Last year, he won the Route de Sud and proceeded to take 8th on GC in the Tour. He struggled through the Pyranees, but showed great legs in the Alps to storm into the top ten. Leipheimer hasn't ridden poorly this year, and his lack of results could just be a by-product of taking a more meticulous and cautious approach to the big party in France. He is fully capable of a top five finish if he shows up in Paris with his best form.
- Santiago "The Battler" Botero, Telekom. A lot of people are picking Botero for a Top 5 finish, but they are basing this purely on his results from last year. He was 4th on GC last year and rode like a god on several occasions, but like always he had one really bad day (on Venteux) that ruined his shot at the podium. Thus far in his career, Botero has not shown that he can stay at his best for a full three weeks. To top it off, he has had horrible form so far this season; he commented recently that he hasn't felt good in 2003 and that he has been fighting a virus. Unless he has a miraculous recovery, he will likely ride the Tour for stage wins, and then try to come around to peak form for the Vuelta in September.
- Ivan Basso, Fassa Bortolo. The young Italian rode to a surprising 11th on GC last year, and this year has shown good form. He rode a solid Volta a Catalunya, finishing in 5th on GC. He is a rider to watch, but this year the field may be too deep for him to make too big of a splash. Also, the presence of Gonzalez as Fassa's main GC focus could hurt Basso's own run at the top ten.
- Carlos Sastre, Team CSC. Tyler Hamilton has said that CSC's goal for the Tour is to put two men in the top ten on GC. Sastre is a great climber who was a monster in the Alps last year; he was sub-par in the Pyranees, but still managed 10th on GC. He will have to improve his time-trialing and ride strong for a full three weeks to repeat that feat this year. He is a talent who could pull off a great result, especially if Hamilton falters.
- Stefano Garzelli, Vini Caldirola-Sidermac. His lack of competition before the Giro hurt him in that race, and he faded in the last week even though he held on for 2nd on GC. However, that lack of race miles could be a benefit come Tour time, as he may have built a solid base of fitness in the Giro that will serve him well on the roads of France. He's a big question mark coming into the race as he has been struggling with illness, but he is a quality rider who has won a grand tour and who could challenge for the podium if he's on his game. The inclusion of three sprinters on his team will likely hurt his chances.
- Aitor Gonzalez, Fassa Bortolo. He won the Vuelta last year, but hasn't shown much form this year. He has had good time-trial legs, but in the Giro his climbing legs were nowhere to be found. He'll ride good time trials in the Tour, but he'll get crushed on the climbs by Armstrong, Heras, Ullrich, Simoni, and the rest of the mountain beasts.
- Michael Rogers, Quickstep-Davitamon. The kid has been spectacular so far this season, winning the overall at the Tour of Belgium, the Tour of Germany, and the Route de Sud. The Aussie is a demon against the clock, and may very well take a stage in that discipline (and an early Yellow Jersey). He can also climb well, though he is too young and inexperienced to hope to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Armstrong and Ullrich for three weeks. Still, he's truly a rider for the future and could deliver a surprise or two before the end of the race. Look out, White Jersey.
- Angel Casero, Team Bianchi The former Vuelta winner will likely ride in support of Jan Ullrich. He is a solid climber and could break the top ten, but he hasn't shown the form that won him the Vuelta in a while.
There, now I've said it. I'll be back soon to embarrass myself some more by trying to predict the Green Jersey (sprinters) competition and the Polka-Dot Jersey (mountains) race, and to give a preview of Crazy Jane's new "Jambons Délicieux" report. Until then, keep the rubber side down and don't be a wheel-sucker.