Manolo Sáiz: The route is an “original” one, but Armstrong still is the man to beat: Giving voice to his opinions after the presentation of the 2004 Tour de France route, Spanish team manager Manolo Sáiz said that the parcours of the next “Grand Boucle” is “original” but neverthless the favourite to take the title in Paris is one more time Lance Armstrong, winner of the last five editions of the race.
“Armstrong has won the Tour five times, and he wouldn’t be uncomfortable in any kind of route. There‘s 150 km. against the clock (in the next TdF), and plenty of room for him to make the gap again”. According to the DS of the former ONCE team, the Alpe d’Huez ITT is good for Armstrong, and besides that, he pointed out that in the past the American already won a stage ending into La Mongie, one of three mountain top finishes (L’Alpe d’Huez aside) of the 2004 edition.
In Manolo’s opinion, the biggest news of the 2004 Tour is that, whereas in past editions most of the decisive (hilly) stages came in the second week, this time they are in the last one, with just some middle mountain stages, that may have very different outcomes, coming halfway through the competition. “It’s a more “tactical” route, which could make things harder for a team leader, that should keep hisr concentration and from throughout the three weeks of racing” were his words. Saiz added that in such a route it will be harder for long breakaways to form and succeed in the first days. Although team strategies “won’t change that much” .
Asked about his team’s future, the “Director Deportivo” confessed that there are plans to set up a Spanish team, but didn’t elaborate, not even mentioning the names of any eventual sponsor. As to Joseba Beloki, Saiz told that the rider promised he would stay with him, but also added that he’s currently more interested in the team as a whole rather any single rider “I think that Beloki will be at the Tour with me, but if this shouldn’t hppen, it wouldn’t be much of a problem”.
Eusebio Unzué: "A route for the climbers": The manager of the Illers Balears-Banesto team (formerly iBanesto.com), said that in his opinion the course of the 2004 Tour is particularly suitable for teams featuring excellent mountain goats. At the same time, he added that next year could mark the end of Armstrong’s hegemony. “I like the route. There are some new features, like the Alpe d'Huez Time Trial, that’s where we might have huge gaps among the overall contenders”.
Unzué stated that the Alpe d'Huez ITT will not be detrimental to Armstrong "On the contrary, I think he may take time out of Ullrich there” although "there could be a change in the order of the top two riders". And again “Last year Armstrong won, but also because of Ullrich’s attitude. And the German can improve, while it is possible that Armstrong may start his decline. They are the strongest guys, anyway, and either of them can win, as there’s a balance of power between the two”.
The Directeur Sportif of Illes Balears-Banesto told Spanish medias that, in his opinion, the time gaps will be minor in such a route, and the ITTs could make a lesser impact on the final GC than in the past, adding that “This kind of parcours suits better our skills, at least if, as I hope, we’ll be fielding Francisco Mancebo, who may renew his contract in the next hours”.
Julián Gorospe aiming for a podium spot: The team manager of Euskaltel-Euskadi said that his objective for the 2004 Tour is a place on the overall podium for an “orange warrior”, as the route “is good for the climbers”. “Our goal will be a podium place, and we are gonna work for that. Last year we came close, and we’ll be trying again in 2004” said Gorospe, who added that Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo, fifth and sixth place finishers in the last edition, will be team leaders again.
”We’ll go to the Tour with both of our leaders. The aim is to achieve the same level as other riders that proved better (than Zubeldia and Mayo). And I think that if we move a step forward, we can do it. It will be important to be in a good form, both physically and mentally. And if the legs are good, we’ll find enough route and climbs to enable us to do well”.
More from the Basque manager “The first part of the Tour is very difficult, with narrow roads, that will make things harder for a big peloton. The second part may be good for the climbers. There’s an uphill ITT, and the ultimate Time Trial doesn’t look that flat. We can have the chance to be competitive until the end”.
According to Gorospe, the fact that Euskaltel will be admitted into the race without the need to wait for a wild-card (and waste energies riding hard in early season contests to convince Mr. Leblanc that they are strong enough to deserve an invitation) could positively affect the team and their performances, as the leaders can go to France without too many kilometres in their legs.
Also the Euskaltel-Euskadi director made some remarks on Ullrich, Armstrong and Alpe d’Huez. In his opinion, the main favourite in 2004 won’t be the reigning champion, but his German challenger: "In 2003 Jan Ullrich got back to his usual condition, gained confidence, and came close to win. And I think that with a good planning and build-up, he could be the next winner". Gorospe agreed with the afore mentioned team managers that the Alpe d'Huez “race of the truth” will not harm Armstrong’s chances, and that “it will be an important day to make the gap”, also adding that “in the end it’s the most regular rider that wins”.
Vicente Belda: "The Alpe d’Huez as a cycling fiesta”: That’s the way the Kelme-Costa Blanca team director labelled the most outstanding feature of the 2004 Tour de France, the Individual Time Trial finishing at the top of the legendary alpine climb. He also said that the route of the next Grande Boucle may pave the way for "una carrera interesante" (an interesting race) and expressed the hope that the organizers may be sensible to Kelme’s 25th anniversary in professional cycling, thus awarding one of the 8 wild-cards to the oldest team in the peloton.
According to Belda, the race will still be wide open in its last week, just like it was in the last edition. The key stages could be the above quoted Alpe d'Huez ITT and the following, extremely demanding leg, plus the ultimate Time Trial, whose course is not that flat.
The Kelme’s DS picked Armstrong and Ullrich as main suspects to win the race, and thinks that either of them may win, although the route unveiled in Paris may give a few chances also to “lesser” riders such as Simoni, Beloki, Mayo or Hamilton.
Asked about his own team, Belda said that the “unexpected” departure of Oscar Sevilla was a big blow to Kelme, as it gave him few time to react and sign new riders, although the Kelme manager added that by the next Sunday the signing of three newcomers (two of which Spaniards) might be announced. “As for the Spanish riders, we are still negotiating with Francisco Mancebo and Angel Casero, and as to the foreign guy, I will just tell you that he’s a climber" were Belda’s last remarks on this topic.
But when it comes to the latest addition to the list of young talents that hit the headlines first when racing with by Kelme, e.g. Alejandro Valverde, Belda said that we’ll hardly see the Vuelta podium finisher, and World Championship silver medalist, race in France, as also in 2004 the man’s main target will be the Tour of Spain, and “we can’t pretend that a 23-year-old may ride hard in two Grand Tours a year, if we want him to be a lasting good rider”.
González de Galdeano: With the mountain stages in the third week, someone might pay dearly: Also Basque rider Igor González de Galdeano, racing for ONCE-Eroski in the last seasons (and previously Vitalicio Seguros) commented upon the route of the 2004 TdF, and said that the presence of most mountain stages in the third week of competition could cause some probs to any riders, making it harder for them to keep their form until the end. It might occur anything similar to what IGG himself experienced two years ago, when he was GC leader in the first week of racing, just to ran out of steam later.
As for the main topic in TdF-related discussions, Igor said that the Alpe d’Huez ITT “is not the kind of stage when I can get my best results”, but nevertheless “when it comes to (having a big) spectacle and delighting fans, I think the organizers made the right choice”.
More on the 2004 route and Lance Armstrong: "The parcours is similar to the most recent ones. I don’t think it is more appropriate for either the climbers or time-triallists. I just think that in the end the best rider will win, as usual”. As for the five-time winner, and his decision to change his preparation for the TdF, IGG stated that "It shows how much (Armstrong) realizes that it’s getting more difficult for him to win. I didn’t even think Armstrong could get back to racing the Tour if anyone dared to attack and drop him. But he surprised me a lot, he proved that he’s a great champion, that is going to go for his sixth victory”.
Galdeano’s latest remarks focused on the future of the new team that should replace ONCE-Eroski. And Igor expressed his support for new project Manolo Sáiz is trying to create: “To set up a new team is no easy task. Negotiations are making some progress anyway, and I am confident that in the next days the start a new team may be officially announced. Sure I had several offers, even from a Spanish side, but what attracts me the most is what Manolo (Sáiz) is currently trying to do". Such that “Although it’s better not to close the door to anything, if Manolo’s plans should came to fruition, I would follow him. I do trust him, he’s a serious man, and never disappointed me. I think he’ll succeed, and he’s got my confidence vote”.
Zubeldia and Mayo satisfied with the route: The Euskaltel-Euskadi duo hit the Top 10 overall in the last edition, but as their team manager Julian Gorospe said, the next target of the two "orange warriors" will be no less than a podium spot. And both riders sounded like they think the 2004 course will give'em a chance.
Here are words from Haimar Zubeldia "This parcours is appropriate for riders like me, even with the inclusion of such a hard stage as the Alpe d'Huez ITT. Indeed I'm steadily improving my climbing skills".
And here's what Iban Mayo said "I'm pleased by the 2004 Route. The Alpe d'Huez is a climb I know well, as I was the last rider to win there, and the introduction of the uphill ITT was a pleasant surprise. The next Tour de France will be excellent".
Ivan Basso: The Alpe ITT is a good thing: Italy’s best overall contender in the last two editions of the Tour (7th overall in 2003, 11th the previous season), 25-year-old (26 in a month) Ivan Basso, moving from Fassa Bortolo to Team CSC, chatted with “Gazzetta dello Sport” about the 2004 route and his own chances. The man from Lombardy welcomed the introduction of the Alpe d’Huez uphill Time Trial “It’s a good thing for me. This ITT replaces one the two long, flat Time Trials that usually marked the Tour in the last years, and made me lose plenty of time”.
But talking of next year’s parcours in general, Basso didn’t see many changes from the past ones “Apart from the Alpe d’Huez ITT, it looks like the “traditional” Tour, with predominantly flat stages in the first 8-10 days, then up to Pyrenees, then the rest day, and then up to the Alps. And there’s also the “usual” Team Time Trial”. He added that “with both one “traditional” ITT and one uphill time trial, there’s room for both climbers and time-triallists to gain some time. Sure climbers are given a chance at Alpe d’Huez, but the final ITT, the last Saturday, provides time trial specialists with the possibility to take time out of their rivals”.
Basso confirmed that, even at CSC, Le Tour will be his main objective of the season. And admitted that he has to improve his time-trialling skills, something he’s well aware of, and something he’s working on, as the presence of a mountain TT instead of one of two flat “races of truth” might help, but not be enough for him to bridge the gap to the best ones.
Not even Basso could avoid the usual “Armstrong v. Ullrich” question, and said that “I think the two are very similar riders. Both are strong time-triallists, and both go fast in the mountains. So in my opinion the introduction of a new mountain time trial will not change things. The race will be as open as if they had to tackle the two “usual”, flat ITTs.” And again ”the gap we saw in the first Time Trial of this year’s Tour was “faked” by the fact Armstrong had a particularly bad day. Two minutes is not the real gap between them. The last ITT was much more significative in this sense”.
He ended his interview getting back on the Alpe d’Huez ITT subject: “It will be a spectacular stage for sure. Perhaps not more spectacular than in other editions, when riders tackled the Alpe after climbing five other ascents. But it’s a 15-km. effort, it’s 40-45 minutes of climbing, so expect big gaps there”.
Gilberto Simoni - No aggressive statements this time: Last year, after dominating the Giro d'Italia, he was convinced that he could be an overall contender at the Tour de France too. Facts proved him wrong, although he got a great stage win, and became one of the few riders that can boast a stage success in all three Grand Tours.
And what has "Gibo" to say about the 2004 Grande Boucle ?
Simply that "I'm very pleased with the introduction of the Alpe-d'Huez ITT. It's a nice surprise: we are going to have fun there. It's not an "impossible" challenge, as new riders may emerge. Compared to last year, I'll have a "softer" build-up for Giro and Tour. And this time I'll avoid making aggressive statements before the Tour start".