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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

First Edition News for June 9, 2003

Edited by Jeff Jones

Armstrong quietly confident

By Chris Henry in Villard-de-Lans

Lance Armstrong
Photo: © Jeff Tse
Click for larger image

In a press conference before the prologue time trial at the Dauphiné Libéré, Lance Armstrong (US Postal Service) appeared relaxed and at ease just weeks before his bid for a record-tying fifth consecutive Tour de France victory. Armstrong fielded questions on his form and preparation, his likely rivals for the Tour, and what he expected from the race.

Armstrong has not raced since the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic, where he showed good form but was unable to come up with a victory. Since then, he has followed his usual preparation for the Tour, his so-called 'boot camp', examining the routes and mountain stages, the individual time trial routes, and testing himself and his team in training camps. Today Armstrong begins the Dauphiné Libéré, his last race prior to the Tour.

The Dauphiné is not only an important test for Armstrong's form, but it provides a test also for his US Postal teammates, and any potential rivals such as Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer, and Christophe Moreau, among others. Absent at the Dauphiné are Jan Ullrich (who will race the Tour de Suisse later this month), and Gilberto Simoni, who recently won the Giro d'Italia.

"Last year I had won the Midi Libre and knew that I had good race condition," Armstrong said, speaking about his condition coming into the Dauphiné. "Now it's been several weeks since my last race. In training I feel strong, but I don't know that I'm ready to win."

Pressed to acknowledge the significance of this year's Tour, the centenary of the event, Armstrong preferred to focus on the matter at hand. "Regarding the hundredth anniversary, I think the athletes focus on the event itself," he said. "For them, like for me, it's the 2003 Tour de France. Yes, it's the 100th anniversary, and I would like to win again, but I think in 30 or 40 years when I'm speaking to my grandchildren I won't say I won the hundredth anniversary. If I'm lucky enough to win. It's a nice reminder of the legacy of the event, but if you ask the riders, they're there to race whether it's the first or the last."

Armstrong once again revealed the importance of his reconnaissance trips to the crucial stages of the Tour, and underlined the importance for him of being prepared. "I think there are a few surprising stages," he noted. "For example, in the Alps everybody looks at the Galibier and l'Alpe d'Huez. But they forget about the stage to Gap. There's hot weather, and it's a hard stage.

"In the Pyrenees they look to the Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. They look to the legendary stages, but they forget about the stage to Bayonne, which goes over two climbs that are probably the steepest climbs in the Tour de France. So for me, there are the famous climbs, but there are also these ones that nobody thinks about and I'm glad we saw, because they're very difficult and they could change the results of the race."

What about Ullrich?

Photo: © Jeff Tse
Click for larger image

Lance Armstrong has always displayed considerable respect for German Jan Ullrich, winner of the Tour in 1997 and considered by most the only man capable of challenging Armstrong. This year is no different, and Armstrong isn't letting Ullrich's year out of competition fool him into rejecting the Team Bianchi leader as a pretender for this year's title.

"He's clearly had a complicated spring with the team, but he looks to be in better shape than he's ever been," Armstrong explained. "Personally I saw him in April, and he looked much better than he'd ever been in the past. His status or his situation doesn't change for me."

In Armstrong's mind, once a champion, always a champion. "He's still Jan Ullrich; he's still who I consider to be one of the biggest engines in cycling and he's one of the big threats," he added. "But there's not just Ullrich, there are many riders who are riding well and proving themselves in the month of June. They're threats, but he's a special one. He's won the Tour de France before, and you can't say that about many guys, that they have the experience of having won."

As for his other rivals, such as Gilberto Simoni, who have spoken openly about their desire to challenge Armstrong in the Tour, he provided a typically confident response. "They all talk the big talk," he laughed. "It's the same every year, but talk is cheap. I prefer not to talk. I prefer to work, to do my training with the team."

Talk notwithstanding, Armstrong does keep close tabs on what the others are up to. "I'm always keeping tabs," he said. "Whether it's on TV or on the Internet, I'm always watching. I'm always paying attention."

Armstrong was also asked not just about his preparation through the study of individual stages, but also his examination of the different riding styles of top riders like Ullrich and Simoni. "The best is to use them against each other," he said, joking that he was giving away his secret. "For me it's in my interest for the climb to be quick, with a hard tempo, and changes in rhythm."

Armstrong has shown in recent years to have the edge over Ullrich on both mountaintop finishes and in time trials, but he also noted that this year's Tour features shorter tests against the clock and fewer finishes at altitude, meaning the time gaps between the leaders could be smaller.

"Ullrich is a better time trialist and Simoni's a better climber," he said about the two. "But it's not as if they're on a team and racing against me, they're also racing against each other. So Simoni is going to have to make up the difference on Ullrich, and vice versa. So for me the higher tempo on the climbs, the change of rhythm on the climbs is good. Simoni will have to do that if Ullrich time trials the way he can."

As usual, Armstrong also had words of praise for former teammate Tyler Hamilton, who has enjoyed a tremendous first half of the 2003 season. "Tyler is a complete rider, which is what you need to win stage races and to be good in the Tour de France," he said. "Tyler is a threat for the Tour de France. We know him well, but he's improved since he left [US Postal]. He's a threat, and he has experience."

No worries for Hincapie

Photo: © Jeff Tse
Click for larger image

Finally, the question of Armstrong's own team preparation was posed, noting that two of his key lieutenants, George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, suffered early season illness and injury which have delayed their preparation for the Tour. Armstrong noted that Landis' broken hip was a more complicated situation, and the Dauphiné will begin to show how much Landis has been able to rebuild his form. Hincapie, on the other hand, poses no worries for Armstrong. "The George Hincapie I saw in the Alps in the training camp is better than the George I saw last summer," Armstrong explained.

With the addition of talented climber Manuel Beltran, who joined US Postal Service during the demise of Team Coast, Armstrong hopes to count once again on a powerful team to take him to Paris. He admitted that he does perhaps feel a year older, but the motivation and the fitness seem to be in place once again for a fifth consecutive victory.

"I still feel strong," he concluded. "I think I perhaps I get out of bed a bit slower than four or five years ago. I don't think there's a crisis, I think we're comfortable with the way I'm riding."

Gonzalez de Galdeano crashes out of Tour of Germany

The unluckiest rider in today's sixth stage of the Tour of Germany was ONCE's Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who crashed heavily with 3 km to go and abandoned the race. Gonzalez was lying in second position on GC and was well placed to keep that, although he had already conceded too much time to Australian Michael Rogers to be in contention for the win. Unfortunately De Galdeano's tour came to an abrupt end on a straight piece of road with 3 km to go when he hit the foot of a barricade and landed on his right side. He was taken to hospital for further examination, and there are fears for a broken collarbone.

Another unlucky rider was Telekom's Alexandre Vinokourov, who went off course and had to turn around, losing precious seconds that would have cost him second place on the stage. In the end, Vinokourov finished 1'13 behind the excellent Rogers, with a good ride from Jan Ullrich (2nd at 1'10) putting him into second on the stage and fifth overall.

The Tour of Germany will conclude tomorrow with a 175 km stage between Bad Dürkheim and Saarbrücken, with Michael Rogers set to hold onto his leader's jersey and take his second stage race win this year after the Tour of Belgium last month.

ONCE stops at end of 2004

The Spanish blind society ONCE will stop its sponsorship of Manolo Saiz's team at the end of 2004, according to a report in El Correo. The company's directors have chosen not to renew their latest four year contract, which commenced in 2000, and no riders have signed contracts beyond the end of next year. Current co-sponsor Eroski (a Spanish supermarket chain) will probably not increase its investment to the level of head sponsor, according to El Correo, but it would like to remain in cycling as a co-sponsor.

In total, ONCE has been sponsoring the team for 15 years, and in that time it has won 419 races with a record of 53 wins in 1995. Riders who have passed through ONCE's ranks include Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zülle, Johan Bruyneel, Abraham Olano, Melchor Mauri, Marino Lejarreta, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Joseba Beloki. The team has won four editions of the Vuelta España (Zülle x 2, Jalabert and Mauri), but has never quite managed to win any of the other Grand Tours, despite finishing on the podium on several occasions.

The team's history in the Tour de France started in 1990, when Marino Lejarreta arrived to Paris in 5th position, 5'05 behind winner Greg Lemond, who won his and last Tour of his career. Since then, ONCE won 12 stages (2 in 1990, 1 in 1992, 1 in 1993, 3 in 1995, 1 in 1996, 2 in 1999, 1 in 2000 and 1 in 2002). Four ONCE riders wore the yellow jersey: Zülle (1 day in 1992 and 3 days in 1996), Jalabert (2 days in 1995), Bruyneel (1 day in 1995), Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (7 days in 2002). The latter wore yellow after ONCE's win in the team time trial, only conceding it to Armstrong in the first mountain stage to La Mongie. In terms of final podium finishes, Alex Zülle (2nd at 4'35 to Indurain in 1995) was the closest to victory, while Beloki (3rd in 2001 and 2nd in 2002) was ONCE's other podium finisher in the Tour.

Although things didn't go according to plan in today's stage of the Tour of Germany, ONCE still performed impressively in yesterday's mountain stage to finish five riders in the top six. Their attacking strategy paid off, and it will be interesting to see if they can do that in the Tour to try and unseat Armstrong's 'blue train'. It's going to be a tough task, especially without Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who is one of the few riders capable of matching Armstrong in a time trial.

Bettini OK

The fortunes of Quick.Step's classics leader Paolo Bettini have taken a turn for the better, as he has been declared "fully recovered" from his crash in Gent-Wevelgem in April. Although Bettini didn't break any bones in the crash, he did damage the ligaments in his left shoulder and was only able to start racing again in May. On Friday, doctors from the hospital in Lucca confirmed that he has recovered all of the movement and functionality in his shoulder.

"I have to thank Dr Castellacci, who in these past two months, in accordance with the medical staff of the team, has constantly monitored me in various phases of recuperation, and advised me not to force the time of my come back. After having participated in the Tour of Bavaria and the Tour of Luxembourg, I will be on the road next weekend in the GP Gippingen and the Tour de Suisse, with the aim of recovering my condition so that I can be a protagonist in the Italian Championships and the Tour de France."

Padova doping inquiry to be closed

An Italian doping inquiry based in Padova is nearing completion, after just over a year of investigations. It started after members of the Guardia di Finanza and the NAS carried out searches and drug controls during the 2002 Tirreno-Adriatico and the Maratona delle Dolomiti, a popular cyclosportif event. 40 people were implicated, including Lampre's manager Giuseppe Saronni.

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