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Tour de France: Jambon Report - GC Preview
By Locutus
Date: 6/28/2004
Tour de France: Jambon Report - GC Preview

I have a strange feeling that this Tour will be extreme. It will either be extremely predictable, with Lance Armstrong and Alessandro Petacchi showing everyone else a good view of their backsides, or it will be completely unpredictable, with riders emerging from obscurity to steal the show (like Cunego in the Giro) and well-known riders having the rides of their lives (like Honchar and McGee in the Giro). I could write this preview about how Lance is going to stomp everyone, but I've done that for the last two years. You've already heard all my Lance bravado, and besides, history tells us that six Tour victories is impossible for any man. Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and Indurain couldn't do it, so until we see it done, it's supposed to be undoable. Therefore, for the sake of a more interesting read, and to avoid offending the gods of cycling, I'm going to go with the extremely unpredictable Tour scenario. So here it is, my half-hammed attempt to predict the unpredictable.

General Classification: The Top Ten
  1. Tyler "Nails" Hamilton (Phonak). Yes, Tyler. The "Master of Disaster" got 2nd in the 2002 Giro d'Italia and 4th in the 2003 Tour de France with fractured bones. This year, I've got a feeling that Tyler will keep the rubber side down, stay injury free, and show us what he is truly capable of on the roads of France. Everyone talks about Jan Ullrich and Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo, but Tyler is the one who is really Lance's worst nightmare: he's a pure climber who can time trial with the best of them. Also, he rode next to Lance during his first three Tour victories, and so he knows his old boss well. Did you see the ass-whupping he laid down this year in the Tour of Romandie? How about that ride in the Dauphiné Libéré last month, where he was the closest man to Mayo in the time trials despite still not being at his peak? His team also looked extremely strong in the Dauphiné, and they will be united for one purpose in France: get Tyler to the podium. He won't win in a walk-over, but he'll squeek out enough time to make this one of the closest and most memorable Tour victories of all time.
  2. Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong (U.S. Postal presented by Berry Floor). What, you think I'm stupid? Lance is clearly the man to beat in this race, and if he doesn't win, it won't be by much. He has the experience, the focus, and the strongest and most dedicated team in the race. Last year he suffered both physically and emotionally, and he still won. His performance in the Dauphiné Libéré last month had many people muttering that he's lost it, as Mayo and Hamilton looked much stronger than the Texan. However, "El Jefe" made clear that he burned too many matches in the 2003 Dauphiné, and this cost him in the Tour. This year he's saving it all for the roads of France, where he will be focused, angry, and at the top of his game. History says that nobody can win six, but if anyone can defy history, it's Lance Armstrong.
  3. Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Wins in the Subida al Naranco, the Vuelta Ciclista Asturias, and the Clasica Internacional a Alcobendas showed that in May, Mayo was already whipping up a storm of victories. He is clearly a major threat in the mountains, and looks to have improved his time trialing. He once again won the Prologue in the Dauphiné Libéré, where he also put the wood to Armstrong in the time trial up Mont Ventoux. The big question that surrounds the Basque hope is whether he can maintain his high level of racing for three full weeks. Last year, a couple of bad days did him in, especially during the time trials. He made up enough time in the mountains to finish 6th in Paris, but he demonstrated that he's still a couple of years away from seriously threatening for the top of the podium. Also, he was probably at his peak in June during the Dauphiné, and it is unlikely that he'll be able to carry that form all the way through the Tour. Still, I'm predicting that he takes a step up in this year's Tour and shows that very soon, he will be the man to beat.
  4. Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich (T-Mobile). With Ullrich, you always have to take his pre-Tour results with a grain of salt. The U-Boat looks to be in top fighting form, but it doesn’t matter: he always shows up at the Tour Prologue ready to rock. His team has taken some big hits, losing Alexandre Vinokourov and Tobias Steinhauser in the Tour de Suisse. With Paolo Savoldelli still coming back from injury and Cadel Evans being held out of the Tour "for his own good" (a decision that seems stranger by the day), Ullrich's team will have a hard time keeping up with U.S. Postal in the team time trial and in the mountains. But the key for Jan is the first uphill finish on Stage 12, where the race finishes up La Mongie. In all of his Tour losses to Armstrong, Ullrich has lost important time to the Texan on the first uphill finish, including the crucial 1' 24" he gave up on the Alpe d'Huez last year (he finished the race in Paris only 1' 01" behind "El Jefe"). If Jan finishes Stage 12 in the same time or ahead of Armstrong, he will finally beat his arch-nemesis and be on top of the podium come Paris. However, while big Jan is still a great rider who is fully capable of destroying the field, I'm predicting that he's going to be a step behind in the mountains once again.
  5. Levi "Button Fly" Leipheimer (Rabobank). This year the top of the GC will be absolutely littered with current and former Posties. Leipheimer has shown in the past that he can ride to this level, and after his frustrating crash in Stage 1 last year, he will be burning to prove that he can still compete with the best. He rode well in the Dauphiné Libéré, and looks ready for a run at the top five in the Tour. His Rabobank squad will have to have a strong team time trial, however, to make this a possibility.
  6. Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras (Liberty Seguros). He had a great ride during early June winning the Euskal Bizikleta, showing that his climbing legs are ready for the Tour and that his time trialing continues to improve. He will probably benefit more than any GC contender from the time trial up the Alpe d'Huez, but he will still lose big time in the final time trial to men like Armstrong, Ullrich, and Hamilton. While Heras is a great rider, and may pull off a big surprise by landing on the podium, he seems more likely to finish somewhere in the middle of the top ten against this field.
  7. Haimar "Zorro" Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi). He also had a great ride in the Euskal Bizikleta, riding strong in the mountains and showing that he is ready for another run at the top five in the Tour. He is consistent, time trials well, and with his teammate Mayo makes a formidable one-two punch. The Euskaltels will lose time again in the team time trial, though with the new rules, they won't lose nearly as much as they did last year. With this tough field, however, only a truly exceptional performance will land Zubeldia on the podium in Paris. Still, Zubeldia's quality will make him a danger to men like Armstrong, and he will have to be marked heavily or he could pull off a coup.
  8. "Bello" Ivan Basso (CSC). He's looked good at times this season, but his ride in the Dauphiné was very anonymous. This is likely due to the fact that he raced a lot this spring compared to some of his rivals, and didn't want to push too hard in the Dauphiné. He has been brilliant in the Tour over the last two years with little team support, but this year he is with CSC and has a new structure looking out for him. I suspect that Riis will make sure Basso is ready by the start line, and while he won't set the course on fire, he'll be there in the top ten come Paris.
  9. Michael Rogers (Quickstep-Davitamon). If he's not strapped into serving His Royal Worship, King Richard Virenque, Rogers has the ability in the time trials and the mountains to land as high as the top five. He's been lying low so far this season, building to the point where he can ride with the best in France this July. I think this is the year where the young Aussie makes a breakthrough and finishes in the top ten.
  10. Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears-Banesto). He's been consistent in the Tour, finishing in the top ten the last couple of years on the strength of his climbing ability. Now he is the proud wearer of the Spanish National Champion's jersey, showing that his form is a good as ever. With his teammate Menchov, he could cause a lot of problems in the mountains for his rivals. However, it's unlikely that either will be able to keep up with the best for the full three weeks.

The General Classification: Others to watch
  • Oscar "Flying Elf" Sevilla (Phonak). His 3rd place in the Dauphiné announced that after a hard couple of seasons, the ex-Kelme leader is finally getting back to his top form. He will ride in the service of Hamilton, but his climbing ability could keep him close enough to the front to land in the top ten. And if Hamilton should falter, Sevilla is a strong candidate to finish in the top five.
  • Gilberto "G-Man" Simoni (Saeco). Coming into the Tour, Simoni is the biggest cipher in the field. His ride in the Giro indicated that, perhaps, he wasn't quite yet in top form. If this was the case, and he shows up at the Tour with his peak condition, he could really throw a serious wrench into the GC machinery. Like Heras and Mayo, he should benefit enormously from the time trial up the Alpe d'Huez. However, after riding well enough in the Giro to finish on the podium, it seems doubtful that he'll be able to maintain a stiff challenge to men like Armstrong and Hamilton for the full three weeks. That being said, he is a champion, and with his ego still a bit bruised by his failure to repeat his victory in the Giro, I fully expect him to rally and make some noise at some point in the Tour.
  • Christophe "Bug-Taster" Moreau (Credit Agricole). The great French hope had a great Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon in May, winning a key stage and taking the overall. However, the way that Armstrong dropped him on the final stage of that race indicates that he's not quite able to hang with the elite climbers when the going gets tough. While strong enough to finish in the top ten once again (he was 8th on GC last year), he will have problems in this year's climber-friendly Tour de France.
  • Michele Scarponi (Domina Vacanze). He often gets overlooked because of his superfabulous teammate, but Scarponi is a quality rider. The zebra-clad climber rode well in the Tour of Austria, finishing in 2nd behind the magnificent Cadel Evans. This year's course will suit a man of his talents, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find him in the top ten at the end of the three week roll through France.
  • Isidro "Nitro" Nozal (Liberty Seguros). He was 2nd in the Vuelta a España last year after riding the Tour in support of Beloki. This year, he will probably ride the Tour in support of Heras before hitting top form for the Vuelta. He could pull off some surprises in this Tour, but it would take Heras faltering and Nozal being at the top of his game for this to happen.
Okay, so maybe these predictions aren't so wildly unpredictable. But for someone who still thinks Armstrong is in a league of his own, this was a big deal.
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