93rd Tour de France - ProT
France, July 1-23, 2006
Reset The Dials: Who are the new Tour de France contenders?
The big guns of this year's Tour are gone. Ivan Basso (CSC) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) have been withdrawn by their teams amid the controversy of the Operacion Puerto affair. Their absence leaves a Tour, that was already the most open in years, as even more difficult to predict. Cyclingnews European editor Tim Maloney revises the list of candidates and asks the experts to nominate who will make the podium in Paris.
All bets are off where the general classification of the 93rd Tour De France is concerned. Long billed as big battle between T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich and CSC's Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, the Tour went topsy-turvy when both riders and seven others were kicked out the day before the 2006 Tour de France started because of suspicion of blood doping stemming from Operacion Puerto in Spain. With Ulle and Basso out of the picture, as well as contenders Paco Mancebo (AG2R) and Alexandre Vinokourov (whose team has withdrawn; he has not been named in Operacion Puerto), the competitive landscape of le Tour is unlike anyone could have imagined just a few days ago.
Cyclingnews spoke to Sean Kelly, who rode 14 Tours and has been a TV commentator for Eurosport since 1998. Kelly said, "it's certainly much more difficult to pick a winner now that the two favourite (Ullrich and Basso) are gone, so it's going to be really interesting to see what happens in this Tour. I just cannot say who's going to win this Tour because it's going to really difficult to control the race, and who is going to want to control the race. CSC, T-Mobile would be in a position to do that if they had a rider who could win the race, but they don't now. And the situation does play well for Discovery Channel as they still have all nine riders and they have strong guys like big George Hincapie, Popovych, Savoldelli. Discovery were among the favourite before and they know the Tour so well, the race and the tactics."
Classics champion Johan Museeuw, who now does public relations work for Quickstep was known as a master tactician during his career and his analysis of the situation in the 2006 Tour has an interesting slant, "Yes, it's completely different than before; there were two teams that were set up to control the Tour, T-Mobile and CSC and with their leaders gone, the Tour will be completely open. So I can't say who can win this race... but Landis has a good chance to do something special at this years Tour, but it's going to be more difficult to control the Tour than win the Tour. OK, the first week or so, the sprinters team are going to control the race but after the first mountain stages, things are going to be wide open. There's going to be a break and then, who is going to close the gap? If one of those breaks gains ten or 15 minutes, the maillot jaune can change. And there are riders who know that and want to take advantage of the situation and after this, who's going to control the race? With Ullrich and Basso gone, the Tour De France is going to very open this year."
Davitamon-Lotto's Fred Rodriguez also gave us his perspective, telling Cyclingnews that "With the two main contenders gone, our team has a better chance to be a contender with Cadel Evans, who's a possible top-five rider. So it puts more stress on the team over the entire Tour. We're happy that Cadel has the possibility to do well at this Tour. Besides Cadel, I think Levi (Leipheimer), George (Hincapie) and Floyd (Landis) are the favourite for this years Tour."
Phonak's Floyd Landis was modest and played down his chances, despite the fact that he looks like one of the strongest riders in the Tour this year. Landis foreshadowed the tactical situation when the mountains begin on Stage 10, saying "I guess there will be a little more pressure on our team with Basso and Ullrich out. After the sprinters stages, when we hit the mountains, we'll have to gamble a little. We don't want to control the race full time lets see who else wants to do it."
Over at CSC, director Alain Gallopin was frank in his appraisal of the Tour situation for the Danish outfit. "Everything has changed! The first five riders from 2005 (Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo & Vinokourov) are no longer in the race. So [you can] start from Leipheimer, who was sixth last year and [base predicted finishes from their 2005 positions] for the other contenders. Evans was eighth, Landis, was ninth and the others who followed, are the new favourite As for CSC, we don't have a definitive leader. We have Sastre, who had a good Giro and so it's normal to protect him a bit, but we won't put much pressure on the riders and just take it as it comes, day by day. The road will decide, starting from the first time trial and from there we can refine our approach to the Tour De France. Our objectives at this Tour De France will be decided day by day."
CSC's Bobby Julich has already seen the Tour from the heights of the podium, as the American was third at Le Tour in 1998. Julich was calm and pragmatic about the topsy-turvy situation at Team CSC as he awaited the arrival of his wife Angela, who is expecting the couples second child in October. Wearing number 11, the number Ivan Basso would have worn as CSC team leader, Julich was 17th in last year's Tour. We asked Julich what his role would be at CSC and he explained, "I wish I had this opportunity four or five years ago to be leader of a team like CSC, but a racing age of 35, I'm not going to get ahead of myself. Obviously we have to change our tactics, and we have what we have. The Tour will take more shape after the first time trial and then we can see what we're playing with. We came into this Tour with totally different objectives and none of us was prepared for the prologue as we were doing long climbing training, as we were preparing to work for Ivan in the mountains. So it's going to take us a couple of days to reset the dials and see what we can do in this Tour instead of what we can't do."
Discovery Channel's Dirk DeMol explained on Sunday that, "Many think now that [as] Ullrich and Basso are out, it's now or never. The race is going to be more open but also more tactical. We know that if we happen to have the maillot jaune, we have the tactical skills and experience to defend it. For Discovery Channel, the first big day will be the time trial in Rennes," explained Demol.
T-Mobile's Olaf Ludwig declared on Sunday that, "Before the Tour, everyone on T-Mobile was geared up to support Ullrich, so now our options are Andreas Kloeden, Michael Rogers and maybe Sergei Honchar, but we will only decide in Rennes after the time trial who the team leader will be."
Some observers have posited an all-American podium in Paris, like French long-time radio journalist JP Brouchon. Dauphiné Libéré winner Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), Phonak's Floyd Landis, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie clearly all have a chance to shine at this years Tour.
Leipheimer has a strong team, perhaps the strongest squad left in the race and they are totally focused on helping Levi to his best Tour ever. Leipheimer will have precious help in the mountains from Austrian hardman Georg Totschnig and the little man with a big motor from Santa Rosa has an excellent chance to end up on the podium in Paris.
Landis has had a superb year so far with wins in the tours of California and Georgia in the US and his biggest career victory to date in Paris-Nice. Landis skipped the Giro and at his comeback race, the Dauphiné Libéré, the Phonak man rode a good time trial, but was otherwise inconsistent. "I was pleased with my time trial there, but I had been training hard and was tired," he said. Landis clearly has the talent to end up on the podium, but his Phonak team has been severely weakened by the loss of strong support riders like Jose Enrique Guiterrez and Santi Botero from the Opercion Puerto fallout, so Phonak's team may not be able to give Landis the support he needs to win the Tour.
Julich, the only American other than Armstrong and Greg Lemond to reach the Tour De France podium, may find himself as the CSC team leader after the departure of Basso. Julich's showed good form in the Giro, where he supported Basso well, but he hasn't prepared specifically to win the Tour overall and that could be a handicap for the CSC man. But Julich is a strong, experienced and complete rider with smarts and drive. He can count on a strong, experienced team if he gets in a position to win, so don't count Julich out.
Over at Discovery Channel, team boss Johan Bruyneel's mind will be on how to achieve eight straight wins. George Hincapie is a contender, but there's also Popovych, Savoldelli and Jose Azevedo. Popo was last year's maillot blanc as the Tour's best young rider and finished 12th, while il Falco Savoldelli had allergy problems that slowed him at the Giro and prevented him from training afterwards.
Azevedo is Discovery's dark horse, as the tough little Portugese rider is no stranger to the top ten at the Tour and was recently fourth overall at the Dauphiné Libéré. Other Tour De France contenders are ProTour leader Alejandro Valverde and Vladimir Karpets of Caisse d'Epargne, Ag2r's rangy Frenchman Christope Moreau and Lampre-Fondital's rookie Damiano Cunego. No matter what, the wide open 2006 edition of the Tour de France will offer some of the most exciting, unpredictable and suspense filled racing in years.