Who will fill Armstrong's shoes?

The route for this year's edition of the Tour will open the race up to the non-climbers, as the race...

93rd Tour de France - ProT

France, July 1-23, 2006

Who will fill Armstrong's shoes?

The 2006 Tour de France is the most open since 1999 with no obvious candidate to totally dominate the race as Lance Armstrong did. With a balanced parcours that will favour an all-rounder and a mix of outgoing greats who have been waiting their turn and up-and-coming stars, this year's Tour could be the most exciting in years. John Kenny looks at the favourites and the outsiders for the podium in Paris.

The route for this year's edition of the Tour will open the race up to the non-climbers, as the race profile will favour all-rounders who can climb capably and who excel in time trials. The mountainous stages are also less severe this year compared to recent editions. It's difficult to see how a pure climber can win the yellow jersey without the ability to at least limit their losses in the two long, flat time trials.

The exclusion of the team test this year affects Ivan Basso (CSC) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) more than most other GC candidates. The leaders of the CSC and T-Mobile super-squads would have fancied their chances of landing a psychological blow through a show of team strength and solidarity. Putting some early time into riders from weaker teams would have been a bonus, although the race organisers had already effectively made the TTT more of a colourful display than a serious sorting out stage with the time-loss minimisation scheme.

The candidates

Basso and Ullrich may be the bookies favourites for the 2006 Tour, but there are a host of other riders who will fancy a shot at the title in the post-Armstrong era. Don't tell Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D'epargne - Illes Balears) that they're outsiders now that Armstrong has retired.

Alexander Vinokourov's team (Astana - Würth, née Liberty Seguros - Würth) has been allowed to start now that the re-jigged team has secured an eleventh-hour Protour license. He may be able to throw off the distractions of the Operacion Puerto doping affair and put together one of his trademark shows of strength and stamina and finish higher on GC than his third place in 2003.

The favourites

Ivan Basso won the Giro d'Italia this year at a canter, but winning the Giro/Tour double is a feat hasn't been achieved since Marco Pantani won both grand tours in 1998. Indeed, accepted wisdom in recent years holds that trying to win two three-week races so close together is just too difficult. However, there are multiple examples of riders who have won the double. Miguel Indurain achieved the feat as recently as 1992 and 1993.

Basso's efforts on Stage 16 of the Giro this year sealed him the overall win and invited comparisons not only to Indurain, but to Armstrong himself. On the slopes of the seventeen kilometre-long Monte Bondone, Basso - as the maglia rosa - rode virtually the entire second half of the 173-kilometre stage on his own en route to victory. Basso reminded forgetful observers of his strength after his stage-20 win over the embittered Gilberto Simoni, "I've been on the podium in the Tour de France twice and was the only rider who could stay with Armstrong on the climbs," he said.

Basso's CSC team lines up as one of the strongest on paper. Manager Bjarne Riis is astute as they come and has built a team around his Italian charge. "Ivan will be the exclusive leader and the full team will work for him," he said,

"Carlos Sastre is very important and we will see him lead Ivan into the mountains and he will be ready, that's for sure. Everybody knows Jens Voigt and his qualities. He is a world class rider who is always there. Bobby Julich had a hard Giro this year but finished strongly and I have followed him a lot in the last couple of weeks and have seen the best Bobby Julich I have ever seen."

The relative dearth of mountainous stages, the two long flat Tour time trials and a timely return to form increases Jan Ullrich's chances (and by extension, hurts Basso's chances as he is a stronger climber than he is a time trialist). The T-Mobile rider started the recent tour of Switzerland's final day's time trial in third place overall, but he secured the overall title after a blistering ride in the 30.7-kilometre test, averaging over 47 kilometres-per-hour.

A knee injury exacerbated Ullrich's indifferent early season form. However, a lack of early-season results hasn't stopped him from standing on the tour podium seven times.

T-Mobile's sports director, Rudy Pevenage, believes that Ullrich has completely overcome his Spring form deficit: "Yes, I think that he is now on the right track for the Tour," said Pevenage with confidence,

"He's definitely better than in the last two years; much stronger than last year."

The form of Floyd Landis has been more difficult to quantify in recent weeks. His early season successes in Paris-Nice, the Tour of Georgia and, to a lesser extent, the Tour of California had most pundits marking him as Armstrong's Tour successor. He can climb, as he showed on multiple occasions when serving his apprenticeship as Armstrong's domestique.

The parcours should suit Landis as he can time-trial as well as climb - he won both major tests in Georgia and California. He's been difficult to spot recently, but his early 2006 tour victories clearly mark him as a favourite.

The rivals

There are myriad riders who can challenge for a top-ten position this year. Picking the final podium places in Paris becomes even more difficult when you throw in a cast of quality outsiders such as Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval - Prodir) and Francisco Mancebo (Ag2r Prevoyance).

The Discovery riders George Hincapie, Yaroslav Popovych and Paolo Savoldelli may be expecting some reward for their years of Lance servitude and produce a top-ten GC result. Discovery's supremo, Johann Bruyneel, knows better than anyone how to get a result in this race. He certainly sounds like he welcomes the challenge of winning without Armstrong, as he commented in an open letter to Cyclingnews readers:

"… now we're facing the same race we have won seven years in a row. It's clear that we're in a transition period and every change takes time, but we're looking forward to the new challenge and we're extremely motivated! Yes, Lance is gone as a rider for our team, but his spirit and guidance as a leader is definitely still here."

Iban Mayo's win in the mountainous Briançon-La Toussuire stage of the Dauphiné Liberé has made him confident of a final podium place in the tour. He is backed by a strong Euskaltel - Euskadi squad that will give their all for him in the mountains.

Fans of native English-speaking riders will be hoping that the Davitamon-Lotto pair Cadel Evans and Chris Horner will take advantage of their recent good tour form. In April's Tour de Romandie Evans gained strength as the race progressed, winning the final time trial and the overall title.

The 29-year old former world-class mountain biker has become a fine time-triallist as his second place (helping him to tenth overall) in the final test in Switzerland showed. He also displayed some impressive strength in the mountains, evidenced by the help that he gave Horner during the American's win on the second stage of Romandie and his own third place on the mountain-top finish in Leysin.

Evans was affected by migraine headaches (not the mild case of Hunter's Syndrome that was initially suspected) during the last of the Spring Classics, which explained his sub-standard results in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

If Evans can stay healthy (he also recently cited problems with a pollen allergy that he needs to get under control before the Tour) he may realise the initial promise that he showed when he changed disciplines.

Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) can also be added to the mix; his win in the mountainous Dauphine Libere shows that his climbing is sharp. The Dauphine can be a reliable measure of Tour de France form: Armstrong participated in six editions of the Dauphiné (1999-2000, 2002-05), winning in 2002 and 2003 and placed fourth last year.

World time trial champion Michael Rogers will be expected to work for Ullrich, severely limiting his own chances for a high overall place, "I am still rebuilding form after my teeth problems in the Giro. But as the [Tour of Switzerland] has gone on I have felt better, so hopefully I will be feeling good again for the Tour."

A Tour de France without Lance Armstrong feels a bit odd. It seems so long ago that he rose from his deathbed to win the world's most arduous sporting event for the first time. His retirement makes choosing a winner from the list of possible candidates a difficult and puzzling task.

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