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An interview with Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden, June 24, 2005
The point men
With the Tour's two biggest favourites seemingly neck and neck coming out of the Dauphiné Libéré and Tour de Suisse respectively, will it come down to the strength of the team that decides the ultimate winner of the 2005 Tour de France?
We know a lot about Discovery and their riders, but what about T-Mobile, and can they unite to derail the inexorably successful Blue Train who have made it six out of six so far? Anthony Tan gets the low-down from Jan Ullrich's point men, Andreas Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov.
It's hard to say which team is strongest on paper - T-Mobile or Discovery Channel. However, both have a former Tour winner leading their team, and eight other men willing to sacrifice all personal ambitions for one objective and one objective only: to win the Tour de France.
In T-Mobile, as well as 1997 champion Jan Ullrich, the Bonn-based team boasts two riders who have finished on the podium in Paris: last year's runner-up, Andreas Klöden, and third place overall in 2003, Alexandre Vinokourov. This trio alone makes a formidable team in itself, and with each one approaching their best form, it's becomes apparent that this could well be the toughest title defence Lance Armstrong will ever undertake.
Just before the team's Tour launch on Wednesday, we managed to find out a little more about Ullrich's two most valuable lieutenants, whose personality and style are often in complete contrast with one another - but will hopefully lead to a recipe for success as 'Der Kaiser' embarks on what will be his eighth Tour de France campaign.
CN to AV & AK: First of all, how do you judge the performances you have seen from Jan and his rivals at the Tour de Suisse?
AK: I think Jan is in a good shape. But he hasn't reached 100 percent yet. I think you can't compare him with his rivals before the Tour.
AV: Jan will be strong in the Tour that's for sure. In Switzerland, he was already in good shape, and as I know him, he will still improve.
CN to AV & AK: Alexandre and Andreas, you will both serve as Jan Ullrich's two most important lieutenants in his bid to win his second Tour de France. Wouldn't it have made more sense to ride the Tour de Suisse with him, rather than the Dauphiné Libéré?
AK: In last year's Tour, I started to be a helper of Jan and I try to stay at his side in the mountains as long as possible. As long as I'm in a good shape it will work; if not, it won't work. Therefore, it is not important if we have made our preparation for the Tour together or not.
AV: The last couple of years, the Tour of Switzerland didn't bring much luck [for me; Vinokourov crashed in last year's Tour de Suisse, which saw him miss the Tour - ed.]. In addition, we have been riding together for years now, we know each other through and through. Together with Andreas, we will try everything to win the Tour.
CN to AV & AK: Speaking of the Dauphiné Libéré, were you both happy with your performances there?
AK: It was very important to improve my shape. The results didn't have a high priority.
AV: Extremely happy. To win on the Mont Ventoux is really something special, I think it is one of the nicer victories that will stay in my mind for a long time. Although I can still improve, my form was good in the Dauphiné.
CN to AV: Alexandre, you've developed very much as a rider since your Dauphiné win six years ago. What are the most noticeable differences in yourself between then and now?
AV: I've matured a lot, without losing my strongest weapon: attacking. But I'm probably are a lot cooler in the race, whereas in the early days, I tended to be very impulsive.
CN to AK: Andreas, it seems that in the past three to five years, riders are racing less and less, and training more and more. Lance Armstrong appears to have started the trend, but it also seems to work for you, too - is that correct?
AK: Discovery rides more or less only at ProTour races. In contrast, we still have many other races in our schedule.
CN to AV: Vino, in contrast to Andreas, you seem to have gone with a more race-heavy first half of the season. Is this the way you like it? Do you have any concerns about having raced too much before the Tour?
AV: I have always done it this way. I need the racing, although I was very happy with the training camps in between. To win Liège is something special, like a dream come true.
CN to AV: Vino, at the start of the season, you weren't as sharp as you were compared to previous years. If we look at Paris-Nice as an example, where you won three stages in 2004 and one stage and the overall in 2002 and 2003, this year your best result was fifth place on the final day. Is this how you've planned things this year?
AV: Of course, the Tour plays an important role in the planning of the season. But the goal has always been to ride well in Paris-Nice. With the very short stages, the race was not very suited for me; I tend to become better as the race rolls on. I was a bit bitter that I couldn't win the last stage.
CN to AV: A month and a half after Paris-Nice, however, you created a bit of history by becoming the first Kazakhstan rider to win Liège - Bastogne - Liège, and then on the stage to Ventoux at the Dauphiné Libéré, history was created again. Where do these wins sit among your palmarès?
AV: There are some amazing moments... I was the first to win a Olympic medal, the first to stand on the podium in the Tour, etc. I am a happy man to have won those amazing races and stages. It gives me even more motivation to do well.
CN to AV: Vino, we've talked about the races you've done this year, but how much time have you spent preparing specifically for the Tour de France?
AV: Hard to say, because everything we do has in some way a reason for the Tour de France. I went twice to train at altitude and I worked very hard.
CN to AV & AK: Have either of you spent time in the French Alps or Pyrenées, reconnoitering the important mountain stages? If not, will you do so?
AK: No, I haven't. For me, it doesn't play a role which mountains we have to pass. To climb faster than the others, that will finally decide if you are good or not. It doesn't help you to know the next curve.
AV: I haven't been there, most of the mountains we race, we have done in the past.
CN to AK: Andreas, after finishing second place overall at last year's Tour, a natural progression would be for you to become the new leader at T-Mobile this July. Was it a hard decision to make, or a hard decision to take, riding one more Tour de France in support of Jan?
AK: Last year I started the Tour as a helper as well. As Jan became ill, he told me to go on my own. And I made the most of this chance. But to show such a high performance everything has to work 110 percent - in winter, spring and of course during the Tour. But if Jan comes with his full strength, he is stronger than I am, and for this reason I have no problem to support him. The most important thing is that someone of our team wins the tour.
CN to AV & AK: Do you think this is what's required to win the Tour, to have a team with one or two men capable of winning the Tour themselves, riding in total support of one person?
AK: It makes us a bit unpredictable. But at the end - when at the last steep rise of a stage comes and neither of us can follow, no-one can win the tour.
AV: It's more important that all of us stay fit and strong. As long as someone from our team wins, I am satisfied.
CN to AV & AK: Right now, where would you say Jan Ullrich is at in terms of his form - 80%, 90%?
AK: You have to ask him.
AV: Hard to say, we'll see in the Tour.
CN to AV & AK: How much do you believe winning the Tour is a mental game?
AK: If you are strong and feel strong you have mental strength as well. But I don't think that the mental strength is deciding, I think the best will win the Tour.
AV: It's the head that makes the difference, one has to be so motivated. Of course I have to be at 100 percent, but I already know that I have 200 percent motivation.
CN to AV & AK: What would make a satisfying end to the season for both of you?
AK: To keep well and fit and be successful.
AV: That one of us wins the Tour
CN to AV & AK: How do you feel about the retirement of Lance Armstrong at the end of this year?
AK: He has won the Tour six times. This tells its own tale. It is a pity that he retires after the Tour, but this point of time comes for everybody one time.
AV: He is a big rider, for whom I have respect. But I can understand that he wants to spend more time with his kids.
Thanks to T-Mobile press officer, Stefan Wagner, for kindly assisting with this interview.