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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

Latest News for April 29, 2003

Edited by Chris Henry

Tour selection approaches

Teams vying for the four remaining wild card selections for the Tour de France, due to be announced May 19, are entering the final nervous moments. With the conclusion of the spring classics last Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which is also run by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the selection is likely well on its way to being finalised.

The principal teams in search of a Tour invite are Ag2R-Prévoyance, Brioches La Boulangère, Jean Delatour (France), Domina Vacanze-Elitron, Lampre (Italy), Phonak Hearing Systems (Switzerland), and Euskaltel-Euskadi (Spain). The Portuguese Milaneza-MSS team also carries Tour ambitions, but indications thus far is that their early season has been too quiet to impress the organisers.

"There aren't many possibilities remaining for teams to distinguish themselves," said Jean-François Pescheux, director of competition for the Tour de France. "But nothing is decided, I assure you. For some teams, the Tour de Romandie could be important in determining whether they're at the right level," he told AFP.

Team selections are made by a committee of eight members, with the greatest influence provided by Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc. The effort is made to look at the teams' performances throughout the spring, and not just at any one race.

A thorny issue in recent years has been the preference given to French teams who had not necessarily proven themselves in the early season. This year, although Leblanc has always insisted that the presence of French teams is important for the race, there seems to be a bit less talk of inevitable French selections.

"Ag2R is the best French team this year, and includes the best ranked French rider [Laurent Brochard]," Pescheux said. "The team is capable of performing on the flats with [Jaan] Kirsipuu, and in the other stages with Brochard."

Some hints were given that despite a lack of results recently, the Brioches La Boulangère team possesses a key ingredient: young French hope Sylvain Chavanel. "It's important not to place too much emphasis on the the results of this past week, our decision is based on a series of results," Pescheux revealed. "This is a young team, capable of energizing the race."

The Euskaltel-Euskadi team has made a strong impression on the organisers thus far, both with individual performances and as an ensemble. "Euskaltel has shown that it has a team for the difficult stages," Pescheux explained. "The team has a good group of riders, with young riders like [Samuel] Sanchez, who's shown himself well in the beginning of the season. The team is at Tour level, but that doesn't mean they're already selected. At the Tour de Romandie, other teams could also show themselves at this level."

Mario Cipollini's Domina Vacanze-Elitron team has posted good results, including Michele Scarponi's fourth place at Liège. As reigning world champion, Cipollini is in better position to impress the organisers this year, and the fact that his team has shown itself not to be a one man show is equally important. As for Phonak and Jean Delatour, their situations are a bit more critical, and the Tour de Romandie will be an important test if they are to carry hopes of an invitation to the Tour.

Win or lose, Armstrong will go on

Lance Armstrong, preparing for a record-tying fifth Tour de France victory, has indicated that he will continue racing next year, whether or not he wins the Tour. "Defeat is not something I like to think about, but I wouldn't want to quit on a low point," Armstrong said in an interview with Darren Tulett of Bloomberg News. "I'd have to come back, to prove myself again."

Given Armstrong's dominance over the past four years, many people have been talking about a record sixth win in 2004, but Armstrong knows not to promise too much too soon. "Let's not go there just yet, it might bring bad luck," he said. "I'm not going to be talking about number six until I've got number five wrapped up."

As Johan Bruyneel has explained, complacency is often rival number one for Armstrong and the US Postal Service team. "He always prepares as if it's the first time; the same hunger, same desire to endure the hurt," said Bruyneel. Armstrong echoed this sentiment, and insisted he is still eager to perform. "It may sound hokey but I still have this passion for cycling, for training and for racing. I could easily walk out that door and be very comfortable, but I love it."

Come what may this year, he plans to continue in 2004. Armstrong has also expressed more interest recently in taking part in the World Championships, to be held in Hamilton, Canada. "If the course was completely flat, it wouldn't be a priority, but I do want to win that race again at some point," he said. "It's a nice jersey."

Life after cycling, whenever that may arrive, will no doubt be devoted to the fight against cancer. "I can devote a lot of energy and intensity to the fight against cancer. That takes a lot of travel, a lot of talking, a lot of stuff that isn't just sitting at home on the couch," he added. "That, for me, can be a new competition of sorts."

Armstrong was appointed to a presidential commission on cancer in the United States, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, founded in 1997, continues to raise millions of dollars to help cancer survivors and those still suffering from the disease.

Eddy Merckx disappointed

Eddy Merckx tipped Lance Armstrong to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège last Sunday, but his impressions of Armstrong were not quite so favourable after the race. Merckx told La Dernière Heure that he wasn't pleased with the way Armstrong caught and passed his son Axel, after the Lotto-Domo rider's solo break which he launched at the top of the Côte de La Redoute.

In Tuesday's edition of L'Equipe, Eddy provided more thoughts on Armstrong and his missed opportunities at Liège. Merckx was also critical of the way US Postal raced, and felt the team was incapable of providing the necessary support for Armstrong.

Speaking in reference to Armstrong's capture of Axel, Eddy Merckx said that Armstrong rode poorly. "When you are looking to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, you don't wait until the Sart-Tilman to go on the offensive," he told l'Equipe. "He should have gone earlier, on La Redoute, if he had the ability. It didn't do much good to take Sanchez, Bartoli and Shefer on his wheel with an advantage that never topped twenty seconds."

As for US Postal, Merckx had little to praise regarding the team's performance. "Why did Peña go in a break after 40km of racing?" he asked. "Why did he ride in the beginning of the race, only to be of no use for his leader in the finale? I know [Johan] Bruyneel criticised the other riders for not working with Armstrong, but what did he expect, that Sanchez and Shefer would ride flat out until the foot of the Sart-Tilman like domestiques?"

"I think he overestimated himself," Merckx continued. "Armstrong was not as strong as he thought. In any case, he didn't impress me."

Armstrong's failed bid at Liège-Bastogne-Liège seems to have sparked a small chorus of doubt in the European press regarding his preparation for the Tour de France. Merckx may doubt the abilities of the US Postal team this year, but he knows Armstrong well, and knows that the Tour is another matter. "Armstrong is still Armstrong," he said. "At the Tour, he's got the edge."

Simoni and Garzelli out of Romandie

The top two finishers at last week's Giro del Trentino, Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) and Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec), have both decided to pull out of the Tour de Romandie, which begins today with a short prologue time trial in Geneva, Switzerland. The two have evidently determined that their form is sufficient for the upcoming Giro d'Italia, which begins May 10.

The Tour de Romandie is an important stage race for those seeking last minute Giro preparation, teams searching for results before the final Tour de France wild card selections on May 19, and riders building slowly for the Tour in July.

China Track World Championships in doubt

Two countries have already announced that they will not send athletes to compete at the Chinese round of the Track World Cup, scheduled to begin July 30th. The SARS virus epidemic has proven too great a concern, and both France and Australia have decided not to risk subjecting riders and staff to illness by traveling to China.

"It's out of the question," was the response from Jean Pitallier, president of the French cycling federation. "We can't send our athletes to race when the risks are so great."

France is one of several European countries considering efforts to create substitute competitions, along with Austria and Germany. With only three months before the Chinese event, time is tight for preparations.

Cycling Australia reached the same conclusion regarding travel to China, and announced that it too will bypass the event in Shenzhen.

"We are not prepared to risk the health and safety of our cyclists,” said Mike Victor, president of Cycling Australia. "The information available from the Australian Government, World Health Organisation and our own medical advisers is that the threat is unlikely to ease by the end of July. It would be irresponsible of us to put our athletes at risk when there is a danger of them becoming infected."

The UCI (International Cycling Union) is expected to announce its own decision later this week as to whether the World Championships will go ahead in China or be moved to another country.

"That is up to the UCI, and we await a decision from them, but we are hopeful they will act in the best interests of the athletes and move the championships,” said Victor.

Martinez goes off road

Miguel Martinez, reigning Olympic mountain bike champion and current member of the Phonak road team, will return to the dirt in May. Martinez plans to race cross-country in the first round of the MTB World Cup in St. Wendel, Germany. The World Cup takes place May 24-25.

Martinez has hinted that he may return more to MTB racing, and is looking to defend his Olympic title at the Athens games in 2004. The Frenchman will begin the Tour de Romandie today with Phonak, looking to bolster his team's chances for Tour selection along with team leader Alex Zülle.


(All rights reserved/Copyright Knapp Communications Pty Limited 2003)