By Charlie Melk
Yes, folks, the time is drawing near. Every single rotation of this third
rock from the Sun brings us another day closer to the 2004 Tour de France. The
last time I checked in with you, the focus was on the main GC contenders for the
Tour, but this time I’d like to break out the lesser known Team Form-o-meter.
That is, let’s take a look at the teams who will animate the GC race and make it
the stuff of legend, come Liege on July 3rd.
#1: US Postal presented by Berry Floor
For the fifth year running, Le Train Bleu is going into the Tour with the
maillot jaune already on their shoulders. It is often remarked upon that the
yellow jersey gives another gear to the bearer, but this same effect seems to be
true for the team of that rider as well.
Year in and year out, Johan Bruyneel brings his team to the Tour ready to win
the overall - anything less would be viewed as a failure. Now, when you have a
team leader like Lance Armstrong, who has proven on five occasions that he can
win it all, this elevates the selection process within the team as well and
makes everyone try just that little bit harder to make it happen once again,
which is especially true this year, as everyone realizes that there is a very
important sporting threshold to be crossed if everything goes to plan - 6 in a
Without a doubt, Postal’s biggest asset is Lance Armstrong. Not only has he
proven to be the most complete Grand Tour rider of his generation, but he has
also proven, time and again, that he is never to be angered or taken lightly,
especially at his favorite race. His legs are an important element of his
success, but the ferocity of his focus and drive are an even more important
ingredient to his winning ways. Bottom line - no one can suffer like Lance and
still come out on top. Any other rider would have folded, most likely, at the
Tour last year with such a tenuous lead, while Armstrong simply proved again why
he is so special. Lance isn’t going to Liege on July 3rd with any other goal
than outright victory, and there are perhaps only two other riders in the race
who are equally as bold. We’ll check in on them in a little bit.
Another true advantage of US Postal is teamwork. Everyone on the team gives
100% to Lance Armstrong for overall victory. Le Train Bleu isn’t interested in
stage wins, the Green Jersey, the Polka Dot Jersey, the Best Young Rider Jersey,
or even the Teams Classification - it’s all for one and one for all at Postal.
Not a calorie in any member of the team is expended for any other purpose other
than Lance Armstrong’s overall victory. In the past, this has proven very
effective and there is no reason to assume that it won’t be this year as well. Bruyneel has put together a solid formation every year
- a terrifyingly effective
combination of rouleurs and grimpeurs that always seems to be able to answer the
challenge when it arises. In past years, Postal had a distinct advantage in the
TTT, always being in the hunt for the win, but with the addition of the 2 ½
minute time-loss limit this year, Postal won’t be able to put quite so much time
into the predominantly climber-based teams as they have in the past.
And let’s not forget about strategy. Postal pays attention to the small
details. Johan Bruyneel knows how to pick his team, how to use his riders in
the most effective way, and how to read other teams’ strategies in a heartbeat.
He always has his ear to the ground, and even though he always has a plan in
place, he is never averse to changing it when the moment dictates that he
Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile squad is a formidable contingent of some of the best
Grand Tour talent in the peloton at the moment. Whether this will prove to be
a weakness down the line is anyone’s guess, but it certainly seems advantageous
at this point in the game. Riders such as Cadel Evans, Paolo Salvoldelli,
Andreas Kloeden, and Santiago Botero have all won, or shown great GC potential,
at some of the biggest stage races in the past few years.
Unfortunately, last year’s Tour de France 3rd place on GC, Alexandre
Vinokourov, was injured during the recent Tour de Suisse and will not be able to
race this time around. In effect, this has snuffed out what Walter Godefroot
thought was going to be an extremely effective two-pronged attack, with
Vinokourov and Ullrich keeping the rest of the GC contenders on their toes,
wondering on whom they should concentrate their efforts during the most pivotal
moments of the Tour.
On a positive note, however, Jan Ullrich finally came good at the Tour de
Suisse, winning two stages and the overall title, so this bodes well for his
current form. On top of this encouraging news, Andreas Kloeden is finally
showing flashes of his former brilliance, with a recent 3rd place behind Brad
McGee and David Millar in the Route du Sud, an ITT, in which Cadel Evans also
took 5th place. And speaking of Cadel Evans, he just wrapped up overall victory
at the Tour of Austria for the second time, so is clearly approaching top form.
Everything looks good for T-Mobile so far. If they can function together as
a unit, Jan Ullrich stands a better chance than anyone else of toppling
Armstrong. He is also one of the three riders who have their sights firmly set
on the top step of the podium, nothing less. This isn’t really going out on a
limb, but if anyone manages to beat Armstrong this year, I’d bet that it would
Photo courtesy T-Mobile.
Phonak is taking a similar approach to US Postal at the Tour this year, now
that they have a team leader whom they feel is capable of winning the Tour.
Tyler Hamilton has proved for two years in a row that he is tough as nails, with
a 2nd overall on GC at the Giro in 2002 with a broken scapula and a 4th overall
on GC and magic solo stage win into Bayonne at the Tour last year with a broken
collarbone. Each year Tyler has progressed, slowly and steadily. Since leaving
US Postal, he has concentrated on developing more explosiveness to complement
his always sterling ability to just plain motor. While at CSC, Tyler developed
to the point where he was worthy of building an entire Tour de France team
around, and then Phonak promptly made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and gave
him just such a chance. We will see in a few weeks exactly how well this
relatively unknown team will perform on cycling’s biggest stage, but we already
have some indication that they won’t disappoint.
At the recent Dauphiné Libéré, Phonak cleaned house, winning the Teams
Classification, the Combination Classification (by Gutierrez - he also took second in
the Points and Mountains Classifications), and finished with two riders on the
podium (Hamilton, 2nd, and Sevilla, 3rd), and another two riders in the top ten
(Gutierrez, 6th, and Pereiro, 8th). Both Hamilton and Sevilla beat Armstrong in
the Mont Ventoux ITT. On top of this, Phonak put five riders in the top ten of
the Prologue! It’s hard to look at these results and take Phonak lightly.
Although the Dauphiné is not the Tour, it is a great indication race, and by
every indication, Phonak is right on target for a great Tour.
Phonak’s focus is clear - get Tyler Hamilton the win. And with a lieutenant
like Oscar Sevilla, who is riding better than he has in years at the moment, you
have to like Hamilton’s chances. Keeping our feet on the ground, however, Phonak is largely unproven when it comes to securing a top podium spot at a
Grand Tour, let alone the biggest, baddest of the three. Also, I have a feeling
that Phonak may leave Hamilton a little over-exposed in the third week of the
Tour - just call it a hunch. I don’t know if Sevilla’s help will be enough when
the big guns start to go off.
A mainstay at the Tour for several years now, Euskaltel-Euskadi has graduated
from just another team to a team capable of supporting not just one, but two
Tour de France GC contenders. Pinning their GC hopes on Iban Mayo and Haimar
Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi has an enviable one-two punch. Granted, both Mayo
and Zubeldia are still short of where they need to be in the long ITTs, but
Zubeldia especially showed last year that he could ride a short Prologue with
the best, and Mayo has definitely gotten much better in the time trials this
year - no doubt about it..
Mayo has also taken a huge step forward this year in his ability to control a
stage race, simply dominating the Dauphiné Libéré from start to finish, en route
to overall victory. Most impressive was his thrashing of Armstrong in the Mont
Ventoux ITT, where he bested the US Postal rider by two minutes! Any way you
slice it, that’s a lot of time, and Mayo looks scarier than ever this year.
A couple of questions linger for me, however. Is it possible for him to keep
that kind of form all the way through to the last, most pivotal, week of the
Tour? Also, what is going to happen to Mayo in the third week of the Tour, when
he has to defend whatever gains he may have achieved in the mountains during the
long, 60 km ITT? He will lose some time to Armstrong, Ullrich, and Hamilton, I’d
say, but how much? And what about Zubeldia - what is his role in the team now
that Mayo is breaking out in such a spectacular fashion? I don’t know the
answer to these questions yet, of course, but I do know that Mayo’s not the kind
of rider to give in to pressure of any kind. To me, he is the most exciting
young Tour challenger to come on the scene for a long time, and I truly look
forward to seeing what kind of damage he will do at the Grande Boucle this year.
Clearly, Euskaltel-Euskadi also benefits from the new 2 ½ minute rule in the
TTT this year (they lost 3:22 to Postal in the TTT last year). Even so, they
have replaced former TdF stage winner and climber extraordinaire, Roberto
Laiseka, with a rouleur, perhaps realizing that it is just as important to have
horse power in the valleys and the TTT as it is to have mountain goats on the
climbs in a race like the Tour. I like the fact that Euskaltel is looking at
the big picture more this year, and no doubt this is because they finally sense
that mountain top stage victories aren’t all that they are capable of anymore.
Of course, there are other teams that have serious GC aspirations as well.
Liberty Seguros has Roberto Heras, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, and the clever
tactical mind of Manolo Saiz. CSC has Ivan Basso, Carlos Sastre, and the ever
meticulous and motivating Bjarne Riis at the helm. All of these teams have
their GC cards to play in the Tour this year and have made the GC their primary
goal, to varying degrees. It’s always magic to watch the game unfold, from
stage to stage and week to week - there are too many factors to account for ahead
of time. Everyone does their best to stay ahead of the game, but the Tour is
won in the moment. In the end, the most deserving rider will win, but it’s
obvious that he can’t do that alone. Cycling is a team sport, and I suspect
that we will see evidence of this more clearly than ever at this year’s Tour de