Friday, July 1, 2005

2005 Tour de France Race Eve Preview


Since the end of the 2004 Tour de France, there's been quite a change in the cast of top contenders. Consider the following changes that impact the 2005 Tour de France:

1. Tyler Hamilton - After abandoning last year's Tour de France with injuries suffered in a crash on a cobblestone stage, American Tyler Hamilton went on to win a gold medal in the Athens Olympics. A month later, he was suspended for suspicion of having had a performance-enhancing blood transfusion. He has appealed his two-year suspension and his case is pending.

2. Gilberto Simoni - Simoni has, at various times, looked to be a possible challenge to Armstrong. But Simoni surprised the cycling world last week, announcing that he is too tired from his May effort in the Giro d'Italia to contend for the Tour de France. In addition, his Italian teammate and fast-rising star Damiano Cunego will not be able to contend-he has mononucleosis.

3. Mario Cippolini - The flamboyant Lion King has never been a contender for the TdF championship, but the sprinter does hold the record for winning the most stages of the Tour. Time takes its toll. Aging and having lost his edge, Super Mario parked his bike after a few poor showings this spring. In addition, Alessandro Pettachi, heir apparent to Cippolini's sprinting reign, is not riding this year's Tour de France.

5. Joseba Beloki - One of the Tour's most memorable moments of the past decade saw Joseba Beloki crash on a downhill in right in front of Armstrong in 2003. Beloki, who broke his leg in that fall, will ride this year's tour, but he has not yet returned to prime form. Beloki has been on the podium in Paris three times.

6. Good-bye US Postal Service; Hello Discovery Channel - You won't see the US Postal Service blue, red, and white uniforms this year. USPS ended its sponsorship of Armstrong's efforts after six years. The new sponsor is Discovery Channel and the team colors are blue-trimmed white. Armstrong and company still ride Trek bikes and sport Nike gear. Professional cycling, like all other professional sports, depends on strong commercial sponsorships.


Despite glaring absences of some top contenders and a new look to Armstrong's squadron, some things haven' t changed for the 2005 Tour de France. Such as:

Jan Ullrich - The 1997 winner of the Tour de France is also the man who has finished second in the Tour no less than five times. Jan Ullrich, 31, is said to be in better shape than in the past, he is motivated to defeat his nemesis...and this is his last chance. Ullrich, as strong as he is, has always been a full step behind Armstrong.

Alexandre Vinokourov - A T-Mobile teammate of Ullrich, Vinokourov may be in better shape to catch Armstrong than Ullrich. While the 31-year old Kazakh is committed to support Ullrich, if Ullrich slips at all, Vino will take over the pursuit of the championship. Vino finished ahead of Armstrong in the recent Daphine Libere, the last warm-up to the Tour de France. Also watch for another T-Mobile member to contend - Andreas Kloden finished second in the Tour last year. The T-Mobile trio - Ullrich, Vinokourov, and Kloden - together could do the most damage to Armstrong and Discovery Channel.

Ivan Basso - This rising 27-year old Italian star finished third in last year's tour and gave Armstrong the best competition in the mountain stages. He's had a great spring, winning a handful of stages in the Giro d'Italia. I look for Basso, riding for Denmark-based CSC, to be the strongest competition for Armstrong IF he and his team can perform well in the time trial stages.

Iban Mayo and Inigo Landeluz - Spanish/Basque teammates riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi, Mayo and Landeluz are both strong mountain climbers. Landeluz won the Dauphine Libere three weeks ago (Armstrong placed fourth). Mayo shadowed Armstrong for most of the 2003 Tour de France, but, like Hamilton, was injured on the cobblestones last year.

Floyd Landis and Santiago Botero - After riding in support of Armstrong for six years, American Floyd Landis became the team leader of the Swiss-based Phonak team after Tyler Hamilton was sacked. Landis has performed very well this spring. With Colombian teammate and super-climber Santigo Botero, Landis and the Phonak team could mount a significant challenge to Armstrong and Discovery Channel.

Levi Leipheimer - This American and former Armstrong teammate is as strong a contender as Basso. Leading the German-based Gerolsteiner team, Leipheimer is primed to win the Tour de France. The Montana native finished second in the Dauphine Libere. The issue is: will Armstrong dare let a fellow American--Leipheimer, Landis, or anyone else--steal his sunsetting glory? The sheer will and heart of the Texan will eclipse their best efforts. Maybe next year these Americans will continue the tradition.

Roberto Heras - One more contender needs to be mentioned. Spaniard Roberto Heras, who has repeatedly won the Tour of Italy and is a Spanish legend, may surprise all. As a teammate of Armstrong, he led the Champ up many a mountain in the past, but as a leader of his own team, Liberty Seguros, Heras has had mediocre results. Maybe he's coming into his own in time to challenge for the top of the podium.

Read "My Amateurish Tour de France Updates" every even day of the Tour.

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