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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti


Tour de France News for July 20, 2003

Edited by Chris Henry & Jeff Jones

Tour GC grip tightens

By Jeff Jones in Toulouse

Constant attacking
Photo: © Sirotti

With three mountain stages to come in the Tour de France, the race for the Maillot Jaune is still very close, with three riders likely to battle it out for the honours in the Pyrenees and the final time trial next Saturday. After the race against the clock (and the burning heat) from Gaillac to Cap' Découverte Friday, and the first day in the Pyrenees Saturday, Lance Armstrong (USPS-Berry Floor) has found himself with only 15" in hand over a resurgent Jan Ullrich (Team Bianchi). Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom) slipped from second to third at 51", conceding a modest 30" to the American in the time trial, and though he lost a few more seconds in stage 13, he remains a challenger.

Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) has put his consistent climbing skills to work to move into fourth place, while fifth place on GC is held down by the resilient Tyler Hamilton, although the tough CSC rider is over four minutes down on Armstrong. Just behind Hamilton is Zubeldia's teammate Iban Mayo, already on the attack in the Pyrenees in search stage wins. However Euskaltel lost a pair of valuable teammates in David and Unai Etxebarria yesterday, after they incurred drafting penalties and were eliminated on time.

The remainder of the top 10, Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo), Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) will be hoping to consolidate their positions and hold off the charge of riders like Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner, 12th on GC), who is well placed to finish in the top 10 in two major tours this year.

The next three days will be telling, with a large number of Cat. 1 and Hors Categorie (HC) climbs in stages 13-15. Sunday's 14th stage doesn't have an uphill finish but does feature four Cat. 1 climbs and two Cat. 2, and on paper it looks to be one of the toughest stages in the Tour this year.

The third Pyrenean stage on Monday from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden "only" features three climbs, but they're big ones: Col d'Aspin (12.3 km at 6.4%), Col du Tourmalet (17.1 km at 7.4%) and the finish at Luz Ardiden (13.4 km at 7.6%). After that, the Tour will have its second rest day followed by the final Pyrenean stage from Pau to Bayonne, which contains two Cat. 1 climbs in the first half of the stage.

Some observers believe that Lance Armstrong has not yet shown his "true form" and has battled at the same level as his rivals in the Tour's tough stages. A rough estimation of climbing and time trial times shows approximately a five percent decrease in power compared with previous years, and that has been telling so far. There are plenty of hard stages to come and we could still see the "true Armstrong" emerge... or we could just as easily see an impressive Jan Ullrich take back the golden fleece that he won in 1997, or the fearless Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov continue ride with the strength of two men all the way to Paris.

Carlos Sastre - One for Claudia

By Gabriella Ekström at Ax 3 Domaines

On the nine kilometre climb to Ax 3 Domaines, Armstrong was brutally attacked by Vinokourov, Ullrich and Mayo and barely defended his jersey, but stage winner Carlos Sastre (CSC) knew little about the action behind him. Supported by many friends and members of his family, he had found the willpower he needed to take the early break all the way to the line.

"There were so many relatives and friends of mine standing along the last climb. They travelled over a thousand kilometres to see me here today, and their support affected my performance today. The knowledge of them being here gave me the extra motivation and strength I needed to last during the final kilometres."

Before crossing the line, Sastre searched his back pockets for his daughter's dummy, and honoured her the victory by putting the dummy in his mouth.

"I always carry something that belongs to my daughter with me. Her name is Claudia and she'll be two years old soon. Sometimes the stress of racing and all the people around it gets to me in a bad way, and it is the thought of her and my family that keeps me sane. Her presence also works as a reminder of what is important in life, and it prevents me from taking stupid risks, like getting myself killed on a descent."

See the full interview here

Pevenage happy

Closer to yellow
Photo: © Olympia

Team Bianchi directeur sportif Rudy Pevenage was understandably thrilled with his leader's time trial stage win Friday. Both Ullrich and Pevenage caution that the overall victory is still a long way off, each seems to have acknowledged that the fight for the podium is a lot more serious now.

"Jan has been getting better every day," Pevenage told Belgian TV1. "He was radiating with confidence. I felt this a bit because he was nervous [Friday] morning. I did expect top three from him but beating Armstrong was something I didn't foresee."

The mantra of Team Bianchi coming into the Tour was that it had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Pevenage has tried to keep this thinking in the forefront of Ullrich's mind.

"Of course the stress comes with the performances," he added. "I think lance will attack for sure now and we will have to see how Jan can recuperate. I am a very happy man; the last months weren't easy. We have come a long way and I have to thank all the people who stayed with us, without people like Bianchi Europe, who supported us and kept faith, this wouldn't have been possible.'"

Pevenage could only hide his enthusiasm so much, however, and when asked who would win the 2003 Tour, he replied with a smile, "I think Jan Ullrich!"

Godefroot also picks Ullrich

Jan Ullrich's former boss, Team Telekom manager Walter Godefroot, also picks the German as a serious candidate for victory in Paris. Godefroot is naturally satisfied with his own team leader, Alexandre Vinokourov, who after the Stage 12 time trial was still within a minute of Lance Armstrong's yellow jersey. As for Ullrich, who left Telekom at the end of 2002, Godefroot sees a return to his former greatness and considers the 1997 winner a favourite for 2003.

"He was just as impressive as he was in 1996 at the Saint-Émilion time trial," Godefroot told l'Equipe after stage 12. "He's getting better each day. He didn't arrive at the Tour at 100%, he wasn't completely there, but now he's going better. The heat is an enormous advantage for him, whereas he hates the cold and rain."

Godefroot may have lost Ullrich as his team leader, but he is impressed with Vinokourov's incredible 2003 season. "Today he has a condition he's never had before, and he's kept all of his good qualities. We know it will be hard in the Pyrenees, but I have confidence in Vino."

A look at the Euskaltel-Euskadi team

By Martin Hardie, Cyclingnews correspondent

It's the second weekend of the Tour and two Tour topics are back on the agenda, the confrontation with the Pyrenees, which for the last few years have seen the Ikurriñas (Basque flags) augmented with a fair smattering of orange, and speculation as to who is going to sign with whom for next season.

Team prospects in the Tour

Haimar Zubeldia
Photo: © Jeff Tse

What can we expect from the orange armada between now and Paris, especially as the race heads to the Pyrenees and passes through their beloved Basque Country on its way to Bayonne?

The team leader for the past two tours is the lanky 67 kg, 1.84 m Haimar Zubeldia, who even with his brilliant Prologue performance which signaled from day one that something was stirring within the orange ranks at this year's Tour. Up until Friday's time trial, Zubeldia has been a little hidden in the shadow of the younger Mayo. But now he has come to the fore with a solid fourth in the TT and third in the first Pyrenean stage to move him up to fourth overall.

Euskaltel-Euskadi is a rare animal in the modern world of professional sport. Firstly, it is a team that is "owned" by a club or foundation, insofar as it has members or "socios" who pay to join the club. It's got more in common with your local cycling, cricket or football club than it does the mega-businesses of U.S. Postal or the Mapei of old.

In this respect, Euskaltel-Euskadi is indeed the odd team out in the world of globalised commerce. Euskaltel-Euskadi was created by Manager and President Miguel Madariaga with the idea in mind to help project Basque values in the face of the negative press the country (that's "country" with a small "c" for the sensitive) receives often at the hand of the Spanish press and government. The drama over the use of the Basque language, Euskera, in next week's stage to Bayonne is just the tip of an iceberg.

See the full story here

Saeco looks ahead

After a fairly dismal start to the Tour, with team leader Gilberto Simoni from the form which took him to his second Giro d'Italia win, Saeco team director Giuseppe Martinelli is looking forward to a better second half of the race. Already in the midst of Stage 13, the red guard took control of the peloton to chase the day's early break which had built a maximum eight minute advantage.

Was this a sign that Gilberto Simoni was coming back? Cyclingnews spoke to Martinelli before the start of Stage 13 for his take on the performance of his team leader. A comparison was evoked between Simoni and the last Italian winner of the Tour, Marco Pantani.

"The difference between Marco Pantani (when he won the Tour in 1998) and Simoni is that when Pantani came into the Tour he wasn't in great shape, and he had time to ride himself into condition," Martinelli explained. "On the other hand, Simoni was already in good condition and it was tougher for him than he thought at the beginning. He paid an especially high price because he had to do well in the progloue, which he did. In the team time trial he had to do well too, and paid a high price once more."

Simoni lost substantial time to defending champion Lance Armstrong in the team time trial, as the Saeco team had a less than stellar performance.

"When he hit the first stage in Morzine, that's when he was expected to do well, but he didn't have the legs," Martinelli continued. "He still has mental conviction that he can do well, so hopefully in the Pyrenees he'll have a chance to do something."

Long road ahead for De Clercq

"Red Lantern in the Tour de Picardie or in the Tour de France, it doesn't make any difference to me," says Hans De Clercq. The Belgian Lotto-Domo rider currently closes the ranks of the peloton in Tour's general classification. A position in which, until yesterday, he had the close company of team mate Nick Gates. Gates doesn't only suffer alongside De Clercq in the mountains, but like Hans he has also already lost over two and a quarter hours to leader Lance Armstrong.

Yesterday, Nick Gates performed better than Alessandro Bertolini of Alessio in the time trial and he jumped to 165th place in GC, disrupting their little get together at the very end of the peloton's tail. Hans De Clercq's main goal in the mountains is to reach the finish line within the time limit. "They'll have to knock me out," De Clercq told Het Nieuwsblad. "Quitting is not a word listed in my diary. Once I manage to get my 80kg over the climbs, I'll try to give McEwen another hand. It's thanks to Robbie that I have been selected for this Tour, he wanted me in because I do a lot of work for him. In the Alps he thanked me every time I entered the bus after the stage. 'Fantastic man, I'm very happy,' he said. As a domestique you enjoy those moments."

For De Clercq, Stage 7 to Morzine was real torture. "I went out the back right away," he said. "Over 200km on my own... If I don't get sick, I'll make it (to Paris), I guarantee you that. If Robbie wins in Bordeaux or Paris, then my Tour is a success." "Courage is the key word in the mountains," De Clercq concluded.

Gates learns the hard way

Lotto-Domo's Nick Gates, 31, is riding his first Tour and is almost as philosophical as teammate and Lanterne Rouge Hans De Clercq. In a television interview, the Tour de France rookie explained his selection. "I wasn't supposed to ride the Tour," he admitted. "But my selection came about because I rode well for Robbie [McEwen] in the Giro and the Tour of Switzerland. Originally I was only supposed to do the Giro. Things were going better than expected and here I am."

Even though Nick didn't make it to the finish of those two previous stage races, and ignoring the fact that he almost had the distinction of finishing last in the Tour's prologue (197th out of 198 riders), he remains optimistic about his chances in this year's Tour. Trying to help his mate Robbie win sprints and take the green jersey home is Gates's first concern, but he still holds more ambitions.

"This is a dream come true, I have always dreamt about getting a start in the Tour," he said. "Now, I'm here for more than a start, so we'll see what the coming weeks bring!" Gates might just have to try his luck and attack; being followed by only Bertolini and De Clercq, he poses no threat in the general classification, and he might get an unexpected ride to stage victory.

Hamilton defends again

Yes, it's cracked
Photo: © Olympia

Dr. Piet De Moor, second CSC team doctor, has showed the X-ray of Tyler Hamilton's broken collarbone on Belgian television to the media once more. The hairline fracture was clearly visible on Belgian television, something the team hopes will quell the unfounded rumours that the injury has been exaggerated.

"As you can see, this is a fracture, not just a crack in the bone," De Moor explained. "You can see the black line going down, from the upper side of the bone, down and then up again, in the shape of an upside-down triangle. Tyler has given me the permission to show these X-rays to anyone who comes and asks for them, as there is a lot of disbelief about whether it is actually broken or just slightly cracked."

Tyler Hamilton himself doesn't think he is in any danger of seriously damaging the bone any more. "If people don't want to believe it's broken, then they are saying that I'm a liar, that my team lies," Hamilton said. "I think that is a real shame. We are monitoring things closely. At the moment, it's healing up nicely, but it is really painful for me to pull the handlebars on the climbs."

Hamilton has exceeded expectations in the first mountain stages, but the fight for Paris won't be easy. "In the Alps I suffered big time because I couldn't get out of the seat to climb," he explained. "The climbs in the Pyrenees are steeper, so I don't know how I'll go. If the pain becomes too much to handle I'll have to quit the race, but for now, I'm biting the bullet."

Medical communique

Bekim Christensen (CSC): Digestive problems
Pierrick Fedrigo (Credit Agricole): Digestive problems
Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo): Wounds to the right side and right hand
Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto-Domo): Superficial contusions
Rafaele Ferrara (Alessio): Fever and difficulty breathing

Weather for stage 14

After two weeks of endless summer, there's a chance that there will be some rain tomorrow towards the end of stage 14, which could make the final descent of the Col de Peyresourde quite difficult. However the conditions for the most part of the stage will be hot and dry, with temperatures reaching 33 degrees in the valleys, and 25 at the top of the climbs. The wind will be from the south west, at a maximum speed of 20 km/h.

Blood tests for 39 riders

The UCI carried out blood tests Saturday morning for five more teams: US Postal Service-Berry Floor, ONCE-Eroski, Brioches La Boulangère, Euskaltel-Euskadi, and Cofidis. Thirty nine riders were tested, and all were declared fit to race.

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

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