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92nd Tour de France - GT
France, July 2-24, 2005
By John Stevenson & the Cyclingnews team
Ever since Lance Armstrong ended the media game of "will he/won't he?" by announcing back in February that he was going to ride this year's Tour de France, the focus has been on the Texan and his team in search of signs of the strength or weakness that will determine the outcome of this year's Tour.
Last year, Armstrong achieved an unprecedented feat when he surpassed the Tour records of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain to win his sixth Tour, and with the discipline and dominance of his US Postal team, Armstrong almost made it look easy.
If that achievement was astounding, what Armstrong aims to do this year is almost unthinkable: a seventh consecutive victory. That would make Armstrong's domination of the Tour almost unparalleled in cycling history. Sean Kelly's 1982 to 1988 sequence of wins in Paris-Nice is the only similar run of consecutive victories in a major stage race that we can think of - and there is a very big difference between a one-week stage race and grand tour.
Armstrong's form is an enigma, though. On the one hand, his 2004 win was preceded by a dominant ride in the Tour of Georgia; this year he looked less strong in April and victory went to his team-mate Tom Danielson.
On the other hand Armstrong also looked unimpressive in the 2004 Dauphine Libere, as he did this year. But he hit last year's Tour on rising form as riders who had previously been strong fell away, and by the time the 2004 Tour hit the mountains there was no doubt who was in charge.
In an interview after the Mont Ventoux stage of the Dauphiné this year, Armstrong told Cyclingnews' European Editor Tim Maloney, "Well, I learned a lot last year... where I was basically drubbed [after the time trial stage to Ventoux].
"I saw what happened last year and I saw how much changes in a month, so the best thing to do is to stay calm and stay relaxed and know that the time that matters is a month from now, if not more. I feel good; I'm not on top of my game yet, but I might be concerned if I was."
Both Armstrong's coach Chris Carmichael and directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel have expressed their complete confidence in their man's ability to be ready on July 2. However his form appears in the run up to a Tour, and even with the decline that comes to all riders as they get into their 30s, it would be very foolish to discount Armstrong as the favourite once again this year, especially when you consider the sheer firepower of his Discovery Channel team. Discovery's Tour roster contains riders who would be GC and stage win contenders on any other team: Classics specialist and Tour of Switzerland stage winner George Hincapie; Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli; 2003 Giro podium Yaroslav Popovych; and uber-domestiques Jose Luis Rubiera, Manuel Beltran, Benjamin Noval, Pavel Padrnos, and Jose Azevedo. Viatcheslav Ekimov may be missing, but this is still a team with big engines for the team time trial and the ability to support Armstrong in the mountains.
The biggest threat to Armstrong's hopes of a seventh Tour win comes from the T-mobile team. The German outfit will throw three of the world's strongest stage racers against Armstrong: Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov. Ullrich is the designated team leader, even though he finished behind Klöden in the 2004 Tour. His lackluster ride in the mountains of the Tour of Switzerland may indicate that he isn't quite ready, or it may be that he has learned from Armstrong's 2004 tactic and is aiming to hit his best form in the mountains of the 2005 Tour. If that's the case, with his time trial ability demonstrated in Switzerland, Ullrich will be a formidable opponent.
If Ullrich does falter, then T-Mobile will have Klöden and Vinokourov ready to step up and continue the fight. Klöden's second place last year, while Ullrich finished off the podium for the first time ever, demonstrated his class, while Vinokourov's 2003 third place and substantial palmares mark him as a threat. If T-Mobile can ride like a team and not like a randomly-assembled bunch of individuals, they will give Armstrong good reason to get up in the morning.
Although Euskaltel-Euskadi has a couple of recent winners in Aitor Gonzalez and Inigo Landaluze, the Basque squad has not named Tour de Suisse winner Gonzalez to its Tour line-up, while Dauphiné Libéré winner Landaluze will be more closely watched during the Tour de France. And as Iban Mayo demonstrated last year, it's one thing to be strong for the Dauphiné, quite another to preserve that form for the long weeks before the Tour aims skywards. However, Mayo has had a relatively quiet year so far, and it may be that the orange-clad Basque boys are keeping him in reserve this year to peak for the Tour mountains.
One contender whose year to date has not been at all quiet is Ivan Basso (CSC). Basso's storming Giro was derailed by a stomach upset that saw him lose the jersey on stage 13 but he still managed to come back and win stages 17 and 18. With the pressure off in the latter half of the Giro, Basso may well have been able to conserve enough to remain a threat in the Tour. Basso will also have a strong and united CSC team behind him. Paris-Nice winner Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt, Dave Zabriskie and Carlos Sastre among the big guns CSC manager Bjarne Riis has deployed to provide covering fire for Basso's assault on the Tour.
Few other Giro stars look like Tour contenders, even setting aside the conventional wisdom that it's now impossible to shine in both races. Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli will ride the Tour as a super-domestique for Lance Armstrong. Venezuelan revelation Jose' Rujano Guillen is absent because his Continental Pro-level Selle Italia-Colombia was not invited to the Tour. Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) is taking July off before aiming to defend the ProTour leader jersey in the second half of the year. Of the Giro top five, only Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and runner-up Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Caffita) are serious Tour threats, but Garate will be riding his first Tour while Simoni has always struggled to look credible in France, however good he has undoubtedly been in Italy. And as for Simoni's teammate, Damiano Cunego, he will have to wait until next year to ride the Tour, as a bout of mononucleosis has put paid to his form for the time being, and he will not start in Fromentine.
Roberto Heras spent several years as Lance Armstrong's mountain super-domestique at US Postal and will challenge his former team leader this year as part of the Liberty Seguros-Würth squad. On paper, Heras' proven climbing ability, and the backing of a strong team including Alberto Contador, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Jörg Jaksche and Joseba Beloki could see Heras threatening the podium once again, especially if Beloki has managed to regain any of the brilliance he showed before his disastrous crash and broken hip in the 2003 Tour. However, Beloki has had a quiet season so far and Heras did not look like a man about to hit form when he lost almost 17 minutes in the penultimate stage of the Tour of Switzerland and dropped out the next day.
Setting sentiment aside, few other riders look like truly serious contenders for the maillot jaune. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) did ride well in the Dauphine to finish third overall, and has clearly improved against the clock, but his team doesn't quite have a Discovery's or a T-Mobile's proportion of heavy hitters to reinforce their undeniably talented team leader. The Phonak squad is slightly better off with the in-form Santiago Botero and Floyd Landis, but can either of them get close to Lance and co. in the mountains?
The Australian trio of Cadel Evans (Davitamon - Lotto), Bradley McGee (Francaise des Jeux) and Michael Rogers (Quick Step) may be their team's designated leaders and GC candidates for the Tour, but their squads seem to lack the strength-in-depth necessary to support them all the way through the mountains. We can expect stage wins from them, perhaps, but not final podium places. That said, if any of those three are going to challenge, it will very likely be Michael Rogers. Rogers rode a storming Tour of Switzerland to finish second just 20 seconds behind Aitor Gonzales (who is not on Euskaltel's Tour squad - perhaps being saved for the Vuelta) and has an ability to quietly but effectively fine-tune himself to devastating effect. The time trials will play to Rogers' advantage.
Illes Balears-Casse d'Epargne has the talented Alejandro Valverde in its ranks, but the young Spaniard still has a few years ahead of him to gain the strength and consistency to challenge for the Tour. But don't be surprised to see him win a stage or two. Team-mate Francisco Mancebo is also a possible stage winner, but neither seem like strong GC contenders.
One team that might cause an upset is Liquigas-Bianchi. Stefano Garzelli and Dario David Cioni have demonstrated ability in the mountains, while the lively Franco Pellizotti is that rare bird, a rider who can both climb and sprint well. Liquigas-Bianchi also comes to the Tour after a disappointing Giro, looking for "revenge".
Whoever ends up on the podium in Paris, this Tour will be remembered as Lance Armstrong's final race, and that alone will secure its place in history. Will this Tour see the Armstrong era end in a changing of the guard as a younger man takes the yellow jersey, or will Armstrong exit at the very top of his game, showing that the only way for him to not win the Tour is to not start it? Over the three weeks between July 2 and 24, we will find out, and whatever the final outcome, the journey is sure to be a fascinating rollercoaster.
Coming up: A look at the contenders in the sprints, mountains and young rider competitions.