"La Grande Bouche" Is Hereby Michael Lowe
I have a confession to make. I’ve become a “Euro-Cycling Fan.” I have monthly subscriptions to Cycle Sport and VeloNews, I actually understand how UCI points are earned and counted, the first thing I do in the morning is check www.cyclingnews.com and www.procyclingnews.com, and I own not only an ONCE jersey, but also a brand new CSC jersey. This past winter I dragged out my Cyclops trainer, set it up in front of the television and watched videos of the “Tour” and the “Vuelta” from 2002 while riding my bike. Squinting my eyes really, really, really hard I could imagine myself riding along the roadways right behind Lance! I know all about why the Coast team failed, where Alex Zulle ended up, and how far along Jan is in his return to cycling.
So, although it is only June 5, by the time you read this it will be July and July means it is time for the 2003 Edition of the Tour de France! For those of you well aware that Jan Ullrich has returned from his suspension and that he is now riding for the brand new Bianchi team; for those of you who have been following the decision to deny Mario Cippolini (World Champion) a spot in the Tour while inviting two questionable French teams; for those of you who know that Tyler Hamilton won both Liège-Bastogne-Liège (beating Lance Armstrong head to head) and then won the Tour of Romandy the very next week; for those of you who know Gilberto Simoni won the Giro d’Italia and promised to “cause Lance some difficulties and hope to trap him in the Tour de France”, my comments to follow on who to watch and who might win will no doubt solicit alternative arguments. For those of you who are scratching your heads, but who at least know that Lance is going for a record-tying fifth straight victory in the Tour de France, maybe this will pique your interest in the race just a little bit more.
Who is the favorite? Lance Armstrong, no doubt. He’s been following his classic pattern of riding just enough of the classics to get “race ready,” while training hard and studying the key stages of the Tour (riding each of them at least once). In Liège-Bastogne-Liège he may have been beaten by Tyler, but mostly because he had been working hard to control the race all day, was eyeballing the other obvious top contenders, and let Tyler slip away. He won’t make that same kind of tactical error in the Tour. Plus, once again he’s got a very strong team to support him and only him in his quest for yellow. George Hincapie has struggled with an infection which destroyed his classics campaign, but he’s back on the bike and racing. Plus the team has Heras, Rubiera, Vandevelde (who rode a great Vuelta last Fall and is my personal favorite as American rider of the future), Ekimov (who even at 36 years of age showed he still has it, finishing third in Paris-Roubaix) and the newly-signed Manuel Beltran, another great climber.
Who do I see as the challengers? (Some of you are no doubt already saying “Challengers? Ain’t no challengers! Only “pretenders” to the throne!)
Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) just won the Tour of Italy. He dominated the race in the mountains, easily pulling away from the likes of Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo), Francesco Casagrande (Lampre), and Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo). Only Stefano Garzelli (Vini-Calderola) was able to stay with him, but ultimately he faded as well. Simoni also impressed me with his desire to stay near the front in the sprints and flat land finishes, going for time bonuses. He was not afraid to push the pace and to “split the peloton” on the climbs. He rode many of the Giro stages in advance of the race (à la Lance) and his team supported him alone in his effort to win the pink jersey, similar to how the Posties support Lance. Early word is that Saeco intends to carry that strategy over to the Tour. Can he beat Lance? I think he has what it takes to win a stage or two in the mountains, but I question his ability to go “mano a mano” with Lance stage after stage in the mountains, especially if his effort in the Giro has any lasting effect. I also doubt he can keep up with Lance in the time trials. A podium finish for Simoni? Quite possible.
Joseba Beloki (ONCE) has had a quiet spring. The man who has finished third twice and second last year (in the absence of Jan Ullrich) recently commented that he is “right on track with no distractions.” He’s been racing in Spain and Portugal and training hard with his team. He intends to push Lance as hard as he can, but does not believe he is strong enough to best Lance without a lucky break (illness, accident, etc.). I think so much of the Tour is mental that Beloki is already beaten by Lance. Can he reach the podium? He again has a strong team, though Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano has been denied entry to the Tour due to a dispute over prescription allergy medication he takes. I think it is quite possible we’ll see him on the podium once again.
Tyler Hamilton (CSC) has had a great Spring season. He won the two races upon which his training focused, for a change he avoided any crashes or broken bones, and he’s got a very strong team and a great team coach in Bjarne Riis (former Tour winner). Carlos Sastre is a great domestique for Tyler in the mountains (and could even challenge for a stage win). Can he beat Lance? I don’t think so. There’s too much history between the two of them and too much of it is based on Lance being better. Could he reach the podium? I think Tyler — if he can stay healthy — is every bit as good as Beloki and Simoni, so “yes,” a podium finish is possible. To do that Tyler has to ride smart and avoid even a single bad day.
Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) has had a tumultuous Spring. He had knee surgery, worked through his suspension, moved to Switzerland, found out he and his girlfriend are soon to be parents, wooed the CSC team, signed with Coast, watched Coast implode and ended up at the new Bianchi team (mostly made up of Coast riders). At the same time he is clearly in good trim shape (weight gain has always been a problem), won his first race back in Germany (in his hometown no less), and has performed well in the spring races. As I write he is competing in the Tour of Germany, his first spring stage race. Can he beat Lance? Not this year. I think that his months out of the saddle will reveal themselves in his ability to maintain his strength and stamina in a 23-day stage race. He is, however, young and talented and has a very strong team, plus a desire to restore his reputation. Perhaps most importantly his impending fatherhood seems to have tamed his wilder side. A focused Ullrich could well challenge Lance in the time trials (he is a former world champion) and he could show up in some mountain stages. A podium finish? Perhaps. But I’m betting on at least one bad day that will rob him of that chance.
Gosh,one could go on and on.... Botero (Telekom)? Strong time trialer, good climber, a very strong team, but a relatively quiet Spring, and an inconsistent history. Rumsas (Lampre)? High finish in Giro, but banned from the Tour (with good reason). Michael Boogerd and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank)? Boogerd and Lance have had a running dispute this Spring. Both men are good climbers, and Levi is a good time trialist. Stage wins and a podium finish possible for both, but I doubt they can beat Lance. Iban Mayo (Euskaltel)? Strong climber, but not a good all-around rider — yet. Marco Pantani? Team not invited, trying to switch to one that is invited, not likely to seriously challenge without doping. Oscar Sevilla (Kelme)? Very quiet spring. Good climber, not so good at time trialing. So how do I think it will end up? Hmmm. That’s a tough one. How would I like to see it end up? That’s easier. Number three, Tyler Hamilton. Number two, Gilberto Simoni. Number one, Lance Armstrong.
And don’t forget the other jerseys! Look for another great race for the sprinter’s green jersey between Eric Zabel ((Telekom), Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Stuart O’Grady (Credit Agricole), with Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo – multiple stage wins in the Giro, including several ahead of Cippolini) as a possible dark horse. With the retirement of Laurent Jalabert, who will win the “polka dot” (mountain climber’s jersey)? Does Richard Virenque still have what it takes? (He has six so far...) What about Miguel Martinez, a great young rider? And who will be judged the best young rider (white jersey)? Too bad that Yaroslav Popovych of the Landbouwkrediet-Colnago team is not in the Tour. He’s my pick for the Tour Winner in 2008!
Alright then, I’m finished for now. Time for the riders to make my thoughts and predictions moot! But my main purpose was to stimulate your interest and I hope I’ve done so. If you want to follow the Tour on the official site, go to www.letour.fr. You can even sign up for a little window to appear in the corner of your screen where you can follow live up to the minute reports of each stage. Same thing is available at www.olntv.com. If your cable system gets OLN-TV, that’s where you can follow it live or on tape. And if you like photos, check out www.grahamwatson.com or go to the Telekom site at t-sports.t-online.de and click through to “Team 2003” and “Photofinish.”
Enjoy! Go Lance — make it five!
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web posted: 14 July 2003
last updated: 15 July 2003