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Tour News for July 4
Armstrong a shoo in?
By Jeff Jones
The race hasn't started yet, but there is no doubt this year about who the number one favourite is. Ask a cross section of the public (and some of them can get quite cross when you ask this) who will be in yellow on July 29 when the race finishes on the Champs-Élysées and the answer will be "Lance Armstrong". Winner of the previous two Tours de France, World Champion at 21, cancer survivor, and idol to many, Armstrong looks to be as unstoppable this year as Big Mig was in his peak in the early to mid 1990's.
And it's not just PR either. Armstrong has the results this year to show that he can equal or better his performances in 1999 and 2000, recently moving into the number one spot on the UCI rankings. Winning the fourth biggest race in the world (the Tour de Suisse) while still not at peak fitness, and pushing Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni into second place by 1'05 was no trivial matter, even though he did concede a little time to the pure climbers on the St Gotthard Pass.
After that stage, he commented that he didn't want to go "into the red" too much before the time trial, which may have been dismissed by some as bluff, but was later proved to be correct as he destroyed the field in the stage 8 TT. In addition, Armstrong's meticulous training methods and ability to stick to a plan support his reason to back off on that very difficult climb.
All things being equal in terms of crashes and bad luck, and you cannot ignore these when speaking of the Tour, it will take a Jan Ullrich or a Joseba Beloki in absolutely superb condition to beat Armstrong. Ullrich says that he is better prepared than Armstrong this year - he has certainly had far fewer weight or sickness problems, although his ride in the Giro did nothing to show off his climbing skills. However, past history has often shown that riders can peak just for the Tour, and Ullrich will be hoping that he has got it right.
Joseba Beloki doesn't exude a lot of confidence when asked whether he can beat Armstrong, but there is no doubt that he is a young rider with a lot of talent, and results to back it up. On paper, the podium in 2001 could look very similar to 2000, with Christophe Moreau a good chance of finishing up there as well.
Unfortunately for his rivals, Armstrong believes that in his previous Tour wins, he has not been in his best condition. In a recent interview in Bonanza magazine, Armstrong said that "Although I was not physically 100 percent, I was enormously motivated. The hunger was there..."
During the Tour de Suisse 2001 he said that "I'm on the right track. Every day I'm a bit stronger. But that doesn't say much: I wasn't that good for four days after the prologue. I don't know why, but I haven't ridden many races during the past six weeks. Now I am feeling a bit better. I also know that the team is in form. Strong, motivated and smart. It wasn't our aim to control the entire race during the Tour de Suisse, but we used it as a simulation...The result was nice."
Apart from the Tour de Suisse, Armstrong's program has also included several one day classics (Classique des Alpes, Paris-Camembert, Amstel Gold) and tours (Tour of Murcia, Semana Catalana, Circuit de la Sarthe, Tour of Aragon, Euskal Bizikleta). In most of these, Armstrong has either been on the podium or at least in the front half of the pack. Without dismissing his rivals, this is a sure sign that he is ready for the big one.
However, nothing is certain. Last year, Armstrong won the Tour and was quite motivated to win the gold medal in the Olympic Games time trial. He was - on paper - the favourite, but ended up finishing third behind his trade teammate Viatcheslav Ekimov and very much in-form Jan Ullrich. The tables were turned, although Armstrong had admitted beforehand that if it wasn't for the Olympics, he would have finished his season after the Tour.
Francesco Casagrande is a perfect example of an odds-on favourite who failed to deliver, when he crashed out of this year's Giro d'Italia after stage one. The Tour de France is particularly dangerous in the first week, and Armstrong will need his share of luck and good management to avoid the inevitable crashes. But Armstrong, like so many other Tour champions, seems to have a knack for avoiding mishaps that can so easily spell the end of a three week stage race campaign.
Go back to 1996 when five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain was looking for his sixth win. The big Spaniard was in fine shape in the month before the Tour, winning the Dauphine Libere. But come Tour time, he lost a little time in his best discipline, the time trial, coming 7th in the prologue, 5th in stage 8, and 2nd in stage 20. But what cost him the Tour were his climbing skills, which failed him on the way to Les Arcs (stage 7) and Hautacam (stage 16), before he lost a massive 8 minutes on the stage to his home town of Pamplona. He eventually finished 11th overall, 14'14 behind Bjarne Riis by the time the Tour finished in Paris.
Armstrong's climbing ability is arguably a lot better than Big Mig's, and he is not yet near the end of his career. But there are occasional weak spots in his armour, which will need to be exploited by his rivals to the maximum when they arise.
We will have to wait to see if this year's Tour will be a close fought battle, or a one-man walkover. No matter who your allegiances lie with, Armstrong is the defending champion and the man to beat.
The 189 riders in this years Tour de France will be competing for a total of FF16 million = 2.4 million Euro = $US2.1 million (For the sake of simplicity, assume that US$1 = FF7.75 = 1.2 Euro = 3,995 Paraguayan Guarani). This is split over the many and varied categories, from stage and GC winners, to best young rider and even intermediate sprints. A brief breakdown follows.
So what about the other FF4 million alluded to earlier? In fact, each team will get FF150,000 in start money from the AIGCP (professional cyclist's association) and the Sociètè du Tour de France. 21 teams will take care of FF3.15 million.
And last but not least, the team assistants (mechanics etc.) will receive a bonus of FF10,000 for each rider who finishes in Paris, provided that at least 7 of 9 riders finish. The total of this pool is worth FF1.2 million.
Worth the price of admission alone!