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Showdown Imminent
By Staff
Date: 6/8/2004
Showdown Imminent

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

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 words.

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!

Jan Ullrich

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 Suisse.

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 Mayo’s favor.

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!

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