The overall contenders
By John Wilcockson
With 1998 winner Marco Pantani uninvited, this 88th Tour de France has the look of a two-horse race, at best. Other than ’97 winner and three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich, the rest of defending champion Lance Armstrong’s potential rivals look to be too inexperienced, too old – or they’re on Armstrong’s team! Upsets do happen. But not this year. So here is our assessment of each contender’s strengths and weaknesses:
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), 29, U.S. Postal Service
plus: The two-time defending champion says: Catch me if you can! His team is stronger than last year, particularly in the mountains.
minus: The one question mark is a possibility of another Joux-Plane-type crisis. And he’s lost two key teammates: Frankie Andreu retired, Kevin Livingston joined Telekom.
2. Jan Ullrich (G), 27, Telekom
plus: He is riding the Giro to arrive at the Tour in better shape, and has Kevin Livingston, Lance’s old lieutenant, to help him on the climbs.
minus: Too many summit finishes could leave Ullrich gasping in the Pyrenees.
3. Francesco Casagrande (I), 30, Fassa Bortolo
plus: A stage 1 crash destroyed his Giro, but that pent-up energy could make him Italy’s top man in France. The Tour’s new Pantani?
minus: He has to refocus his goals, and rein in his impetuosity to perform well at the Tour. The final time trial could kill his hopes.
4. Roberto Heras (Sp), 27, U.S. Postal Service
plus: The TTT, the mountain TT and all those summit finishes will give him podium potential while he rides for The Boss.
minus: He isn’t The Boss.
5. Joseba Beloki (Sp), 27, ONCE
plus: By finishing third overall in 2000, he knows what it takes. And he has a new, stronger team to help him.
minus: By finishing third in 2000, he has lost the element of surprise. Everyone is now going to be watching him.
6. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), 24, Euskaltel-Euskadi
plus: His strengths are time trialing and climbing, perfect for this Tour. He has teammates who also are good climbers and unafraid to attack.
minus: Can this young rider, and a team doing its first Tour de France, get through the race’s first week unscathed?
7. Michele Bartoli (I), 31, Mapei-Quick Step
plus: Talent, talent, talent. Hungry for a big success, and not riding the Giro.
minus: Not riding the Giro because of ill health, and still has some nagging problems from the knee tendons severed in a freak 1999 accident.
8. Bobby Julich (USA), 29, Crédit Agricole
plus: Has remained healthy and injury-free this year, similar to the build-up to his podium finish at the ’98 Tour. Team time trial is Crédit Agricole’s forte.
minus: Everything has to go right for Julich to retain his morale, and one false move could see everything fall apart.
9. Santiago Botero (Col), Kelme-Costa Blanca
plus: One of the most accomplished racers to come out of Colombia, with a team that will be fired up to grace the memory of fallen colleague Ricardo Otxoa.
minus: Last year’s KoM winner made his big gains in long-distance breakaways, but the favorites won’t let him out of their sight this time.
10. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), 25, iBanesto.com
plus: Won the white jersey as the best young racer last year while placing ninth overall. Has earned the respect of his teammates and rivals.
minus: Will be hard for Mancebo to make up time lost in the TTT.
11. Christophe Moreau (F), 30, Festina
plus: Just missed the podium last year, and the French media have fired him up to do even better.
minus: Unfortunately, this Tour will be decided in the mountains, not in the press. And Moreau is suspect in those summit finishes.
12. Laurent Jalabert (F), 32, CSC-Tiscali
plus: For once, the former world No. 1 seems hungry for the Tour, which means he’ll take an aggressive shot at the yellow jersey. His early-season injury means that he should have plenty of reserves and ambition when July comes around.
minus: Always suspect in the long mountain stages, and CSC is not ONCE.
13. David Millar (GB), 24, Cofidis
plus: Entered the Tour in splendor last year by beating Armstrong in the first TT. He’s young and still learning, but Lance likes him and although he finished his first Tour in 62nd place, he did finish.
minus: Has yet to prove himself in the high mountains.
14. Kurt Van de Wouwer (B), 29, Lotto-Adecco
plus: No spark of brilliance, but this dogged Belgian’s stamina and climbing consistency will be useful on those rugged stages in the Pyrenees.
minus: May have to ride as a back-up rider if his better-known teammate Rik Verbrugghe comes out of the first week in better position.
15. Michael Boogerd (Nl), 29, Rabobank
plus: Is hard to drop whatever the terrain, and his Rabobank team has been on a roll this year.
minus: Woefully weak in time trials.