By Charlie Melk
Let the “form-o-meters” and wild speculations begin! This is definitely my
favorite transition period of the cycling season; the time when we can get some
kind of inkling of where our favorites lie in their respective preparations for
The Big One - Le Grande Boucle.
Now, I love bike racing in general, and especially bike racing at the
professional level, because what these people do, day in and day out, is
completely amazing to me. The amount of self-sacrifice and dedication required
to bring out every last percentage point of potentiality in order to leave it on
the roads of France in July is something that I truly admire and am astonished
by on a yearly basis. There are many beautiful races on the professional
calendar all season long, but alas, there is only one Tour de France, and when
nary a single rider shows up with anything but peak fitness, the stage is set
for the best stage racing we will see all year, bar none.
The “form-o-meter” races begin in late May through mid-June, and include the
Classique des Alpes (1.HC), the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré (2.HC), Euskal
Bizikleta (2.1), the Deutschland Tour (2.2), and the Tour de Suisse (2.HC).
Now, as you see from the ranking of these events, they are all highly
prestigious races in themselves, and should a rider win any of these races under
normal circumstances their season would already be considered a success.
Realizing this should only serve to remind us just how important the Tour really
is. After all, how many other events have HC races as “warm-up” events?
From these traditional Tour build-up races, we can get a sense of where our
favorites lie in comparison to one another and project, perhaps, if we were to
be so bold, how the form is running—hot or cold. Of course, there are those
riders who hide their form, either because they don’t want their rivals to know
where they are in their preparations, or because they don’t want the pressure of
expectation leveled against them by the press and public—or both. No matter—the
main protagonists in this year’s race are fortunately not shy at all about
sharing their fitness levels with the rest of us.
And so, let’s take a look at where our favorites stand in comparison to one
another at the moment. It’s difficult to gauge strength comparatively between
many separate events, but it’s also quite amusing. Adding in some more
entertainment value, we don’t have to simply limit ourselves to current results,
we can also take into account the historic strengths and weaknesses of our
favorites. For the sake of concision, let’s limit this little speculation-fest
to Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, with a smattering of other hopefuls added in
at the end to round out my probable top five prediction.
Lance Armstrong is the number one favorite this year, as he has been every
year since his dramatic and unexpected overall victory in the 1999 Tour. When
you win the biggest, baddest bike race for five years in a row, you have earned
the distinction of “Number One Favorite.” Many would argue that last year’s
edition of the Grand Boucle showcased Armstrong’s gradual decline from the
pinnacle of “favoritedom”, but I would strongly disagree. His marital problems
having been resolved, in a manner of speaking, and several of his pre-Tour
choices having been reevaluated since last year, it would be a mistake to
believe that he is not the most dangerous rider in the Tour this year.
If you look at his results so far this year, including five wins and several
important podium appearances as of press time, you will see evidence of a
consistent and reinvigorated protagonist. As we have all learned in the past,
Lance always has a plan. Another thing we have learned is that if you tell this
guy that he doesn’t have a chance, he will most certainly make you eat those
More so than his tangible results thus far, however, one needs to take into
account just how driven to succeed this man is. He is unashamedly focused on
winning the Tour every year, oftentimes stating that it is the only race that
really matters to him, and he has the infrastructure behind him to back him in
his efforts. The plan is laid out meticulously, the director is brilliant, the
team is a perfect combination of rouleurs and climbers who are all there, 100%,
to see their leader to the top step of the podium - nothing less, and the focus,
both collective and individual, is peerless.
When you look at Lance’s attributes as a stage racing cyclist, it gets even
scarier. Simply put, he is the most complete Grand Tour rider at the moment.
He is among the best time trialists in the world, something that doesn’t change
because of the dehydration fiasco and losing one and a half minutes to Jan
Ullrich in one long ITT last year. He is among the best climbers in the world;
someone who can match the violent accelerations of pure climbers and then
counter them, as we saw during the mythic stage to Luz Ardiden last year, with
Iban Mayo, and a host of other mountain stages in the past five years; or
alternatively, burn up his tempo-riding teammates on a mountaintop finish and
attack a rider such as Ullrich within a kilometer of the top, gaining precious
handfuls of seconds and bonus seconds due to his tremendous snap. His team is
always strong enough to vie for the TTT win. He has a sense of where to be and
when to be there at all times. In short, watch out - Lance is well aware of the
threshold he has brought himself to, with a historic 6th consecutive TdF victory
a very real possibility this year, and he is going to bring it in a serious way
come July 3rd!
Few would argue that Jan Ullrich is the rider who most perfectly embodies the
physiological capabilities that determine who wins a race such as the Tour,
including Lance Armstrong, who has indeed called him the most talented cyclist
in the professional peloton on several occasions, and his most dangerous rival
for overall victory at the Tour on many others. However, he has consistently
demonstrated ineptitude when it comes to reaching the Tour at the pinnacle of
his emotional and physical capabilities simultaneously.
Ullrich always seems to leave his preparations a little bit late. Something
always seems to get in the way, whether it be weight problems, lack of
motivation, knee injuries; or in one case, his drug suspension for the use of
Ecstasy - and there is certainly no denying the fact that Ullrich is slow to warm
up during the season, seldom, if ever, showing form before May. Many have
described him as a “diesel” because of his somewhat perplexing inability to get
himself up to speed. Last year’s Tour saw a resurgent Ullrich, one who showed
up to Paris very fit, very fast, and very motivated, if, perhaps, slightly
hampered by team problems that were never completely resolved until he moved
back to his former employer, T-Mobile (formerly Telekom).
Ullrich has taken second in the Tour de France five times, and won the event
once. Certainly the only other current rider with similar palmares is Lance
Armstrong. Taking into account that Armstrong has been the one to put Ullrich
into second place on three occasions, however, it seems that something big must
change this year to reverse this trend. Some would argue that Ullrich returning
to T-Mobile almost guarantees this reversal, but I’m not convinced that
T-Mobile, even with all of the star power it contains, can make Jan Ullrich
better his place in the G.C. classement by one this year. And looking at how
Ullrich’s preparation has gone, given his recent 7th place overall at the Tour
of Germany, it leaves one with the impression that he is leaving it a bit late .
. . AGAIN!
His second place behind Michael Rich in the opening stage ITT was
impressive, but he lost time whenever the road turned up. More discouragingly, Bjarne Riis, someone who knows Ullrich’s capabilities very well and also knows a
thing or two about winning the Tour de France, recently opined that Ullrich
would have to lose another 5 kilos before the Tour in order to be able to win
this year. That’s 5 kilos in less than four weeks, people! I hope for
Ullrich’s sake that Riis was off on his estimate.
To me, as well, however, it looks as if Ullrich is once again playing Russian
roulette with his chances this year, but he has pulled off some amazing turn-arounds
in the last month before the Tour before, so let’s hope, for our sake, because
all of us want a great race, that he gets his pistons in alignment before the
big show. We should see how the progress is coming very soon at the Tour de
As far as personal riding attributes go, Ullrich is a hammer! He can lay it
down in a time trial like few others, as his two ITT World Championship titles
attest to. His recuperative powers are amazing, and on par with Armstrong. His
climbing is solid, and he has been known to just motor away from others while
sitting down. What Ullrich lacks, however, is a quick acceleration, or snap.
In this regard he is also a “diesel.” This puts him at a serious disadvantage
when it comes to matching not just Armstrong’s accelerations, but also riders
like Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras, who some might argue also have the possibility
of winning the overall. I would disagree, at this point, that either Mayo or
Heras have the full package to win the Tour, but what they can do is make things
very interesting between Armstrong and Ullrich. Armstrong has proven that he
can use the accelerations of the top climbers to his advantage, but Ullrich has
yet to do so.
The Others, In Brief
Especially with the probable non-participation of Joseba Beloki in this
year’s Tour, Tyler Hamilton should be considered a dangerous threat for the
podium. He has won the Tour de Romandy (2.HC) already this year (just like last
year) and has ridden solidly all spring. His second place behind Iban Mayo in
the Dauphiné Libéré Prologue, and just ahead of Lance Armstrong, shows that he
is on track for the Tour, and his Phonak team has obviously made the Dauphiné
Libéré a huge priority, placing five (!) riders in the top eight in the
Prologue—shades of CSC’s domination of the early spring stage races, such as the
Criterium International and Paris-Nice. The main thing, however, that
strengthens Tyler’s contending status is that he is a man with the experience,
the legs, the head, and the inherent abilities to climb and TT with the best for
three weeks to end up on the podium at the Tour. In my estimation, the only two
riders who are perhaps more complete are Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. Now
please, Tyler - DON’T CRASH!
Iban Mayo took second at the recent Classique des Alpes and is lighting up
the Dauphiné Libéré so far this year, as evidenced by his recent prologue win
over other Tour favorites, Hamilton and Armstrong (he also beat Armstrong, yet
by a significantly bigger margin, in this Prologue last year). His time
trialing skills are improving, though he will lose an awful lot of time in the
long ITT during the third week of the Tour in comparison to all-arounders like
Armstrong, Ullrich, and Hamilton. All the same, I expect a great Prologue from
him. Euskaltel-Euskadi is greatly aided by the ASO’s decision to limit the
maximum loss in a TTT to two and one half minutes, so this should play into
Then again, he will be more heavily marked by the heavy-hitters
as well this year, so no more get out of jail free cards on the mountain top
finishes, such as his fantastic escape on Alpe d’Huez last year. Which brings
up a good point - Mayo should ride a fantastic Alpe’d’Huez ITT, but I wouldn’t
expect him to beat Armstrong or even Ullrich - in a straight-up ITT mountain
ascent; I like their chances a lot better.
It is truly exciting to consider the fact that Roberto Heras will finally be
able to unleash the full onslaught of his climbing prowess on the top contenders
at the TdF this year! Is anyone else as excited by that prospect as I am?
Heras just won the Euskal Bizikleta (2.1) and Liberty Seguros looked extremely
strong as a team en route to his overall victory. Heras’ time trialing has
improved greatly over the past few years as well, and I expect Liberty Seguros
to ride an excellent TTT in support of his GC aspirations. All the same, Heras
will lose big time in the final, interminably long ITT during the third week. I
see his podium chances dwindle for that fact, just as Mayo’s most probably
will. I would very much like to see either Mayo or Heras podium at the Tour
this year, but I believe that it’s going to take a more complete rider than
either of these two are able to be.
This week will be very telling. The Mont Ventoux ITT at the Dauphiné Libéré
should give us a sneak peek at what we could see at the Tour during the Alpe
d”Huez ITT. I’m also excited to see how Ullrich comes out of the Tour of
Germany and builds on the form gained there during the Tour de Suisse. If all
is well, we should see a stage win from him there, if not a final podium
appearance. All of our protagonists are stretching their wings a bit right
about now. It’s June, and that’s a great time be a cycling fan!