SPORTS

Life After Lance- Searching for Cycling's Next Superstar. A Tour de France Primer

6/26/2006

For 23 days in July each year since 1903 (disrupted only by the two World Wars), France transforms its roadways into the greatest bicycle path in the world.



For 23 days in July each year since 1903 (disrupted only by the two World Wars), France transforms its roadways into the greatest bicycle path in the world. This year’s route gets rolling in Strasbourg and begins to wheel its way around the entire country counterclockwise, eventually climbing up into the Pyranees and finishing with a week-long showdown in the Alps before descending down to the streets of Paris for the last stage of the grueling 3,600 km race. With Lance Armstrong out of the mix, the field has been blown wide open and riders who have long been dwarfed by the Texan’s shadow are poised to breakout. With help from a distinguished panel of cycling seers, John Wilcockson, author of seven tomes on Le Tour, Ellis Bacon, deputy editor of Pro Cycling magazine, and veteran Tour De France commentator Phil Liggett (OLN), we get you under the helmet of six of the top contenders in 2006.



Ivan Basso (ITALY)
2005- Finished 2nd Overall Team: CSC
One look at this Italian’s sinister tooth gritting smirk and you can tell Basso’s boffo! His fierce “I’m going to eat you” killer shark-like grin has earned him the nickname the Smiling Assassin.

What the Experts Think: “I’ve always liked him, I’ve followed his career pretty closely and he’s always had the attitude that he’d improve a little bit every year and that’s exactly what he’s done. In the last four years on the tour he’s moved up from 11th to 7th to 3rd to 2nd and obviously he wants to move up to first. Last year he won a time trial and a mountain stage at the tour of Italy and after he was very, very sick. Most people would have dropped out but Basso didn’t. I think that speaks volumes for his strength of character.” --John Wilcockson

Jan Ullrich (GERMANY)
2005- Finished 3rd Overall Team: T-Mobile
Long trumpeted as the Lance Armstrong’s chief rival, the million-dollar question surrounding Ullrich: does he still has what it takes to win nine years after his sole victory?

What the Experts think:
“People always joke about how fat he is but every July he arrives slimmed down and ready to go. Due to a knee injury, Ullrich's start to the season was delayed until the Tour of Romandy in April, where he managed to complete the race, finishing 115th, 50 minutes down on winner Cadel Evans. Ullrich's not worried, however, and will ride the Tour of Italy to help get him down to racing weight for the Tour de France, where his record speaks for itself: eight participations, never finishing worse than fourth, winning in 1997, and finishing second five times.” –Ellis Bacon

Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazahkstan)
2005- Finished 5th Overall Team: Liberty Seguros
Known as the quiet Kazakh because of his shy nature, when he’s on his bike he’s anything but. Vinokourov is a ballsy bike rider whose relentlessly aggressive style has made him a fan favourite.

What the Experts think: “You never know when he’s going to make a move. There is no rhyme or reason for when he makes attacks. Lance planned even the day and the moment a week before he got there but with Vinokourov you haven’t a bloody clue. If he see that road and it looks good and the winds in the right direction then he’s gone. This annoys other riders because they’ll counter the move and then he’ll go again. This guy is immensely strong and a brilliant bike racer. He went into hiding after winning the tour de Castilla Leon in Spain back in March and we really haven’t heard much of him since. I think he’s gearing up for one big crack at the Tour de France.” –Phil Liggett

Floyd Landis (U.S.A)
2005- Finished 9th Overall Team: Photek
Armstrong’s former first lieutenant is on a roll this season. Landis won the Tour of California, the Paris-Nice, and the Tour de Georgia. He opted out of the Tour of Italy to save his strength for July.

What the Experts think: “He’s probably at the height of his powers right now. When he rode for Armstrong he was always his strongest in the third week of the tour, which again is the crucial week this year. The alpine stages and the final time trial all have to be very strong. He’s finished top-ten, he knows what it is to be a leader, and he knows what it takes to win the tour having helped Lance win three times and he’s confident.. His time trialing is very good, his climbing is strong and steady—whether he can stay with Basso is another matter but that’s what we have races for.” –John Wilcockson

Cadel Evans (AUSTRALIA)
2005-finished 8th overall in 2005 Team: Davitamon-Lotto
This Aussie can really bring it on the steep stuff. He’s a climbing fiend who also can take a licking: he’s broken his collar-bone seven times. Evans snapped his clavicle right before the 2000 Sydney Olympics and still managed to finish seventh in the cross-country mountain bike race.

What the Experts think:“I’ve known Cadel since he was a kid. Back in 1998 I saw him win the tour of Tasmania with a friend. I said ‘Jesus, this kid has the quality to win the Tour de France, what the hell is he doing riding mountain This guy knows his targets and he knows what he wants. Cadel’s having a great year. He won the Tour de Romandy in Switzerland, only the second time ever for an Australian, and he won it in the time trial on the very last day beating some of the big names. He’s had some good race wins and I’ve marked him down to finish third in the tour this year.” --Phil Liggett

Levi Leipheimer (USA)
2005- Finished 6th in 2005 Team: Gerolsteiner
For much of the year this Montana born mountain king has been out of sight and out of mind entering many low-key events while preparing for the big race. Leipheimer’s stealth- training approach just might pay dividends in July.

What the experts think: “He has had a relatively quiet season so far, especially compared to compatriot Landis. But, as the highest-placed American behind winner Armstrong last year placing sixth, he'll be looking to improve on the consistency he's shown in the past few editions, finishing eighth in 2002 and ninth in 2004. Tipped for greatness since coming almost from nowhere to record third at the 2001 Tour of Spain while with US Postal, Leipheimer left Armstrong behind to concentrate on his own career, first with the Dutch Rabobank squad, and now as the leader of the German Gerolsteiner team.” –Ellis Bacon

This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of Bell T.V. Magazine

Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2006

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