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Tour Countdown: The Teams That Will Make the GC Race
By Staff
Date: 6/22/2004
Tour Countdown: The Teams That Will Make the GC Race

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 row.

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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 should.

#2: T-Mobile

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 be Ullrich.

Photo courtesy T-Mobile.

#3: Phonak

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.

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#4: Euskaltel-Euskadi

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.

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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 France.

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