By John Wilcockson
The line-up for this year’s Tour might be a little thin when it kicks off in Dunkirk on July 7. By favoring three French Division 2 squads in its 16 pre-selections for the 2001 Tour de France on Tuesday, the race organizers left out the teams of Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno-Albacom), Alex Zülle and Fernando Escartin (Team Coast), Laurent Jalabert (CSC-World Online), Pavel Tonkov and Chann McRae (Mercury-Viatel), Mario Cipollini and Laurent Dufaux (Saeco), Jeroen Blijlevens (Lotto-Adecco), David Etxebarria and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Christophe Mengin (La Française des Jeux). These eight teams will now have to fight for the Tour’s remaining four wild-card slots that will be announced at the end of April.
In explaining the shock omissions, Tour director-general Jean-Marie Leblanc said, “We put our confidence in the teams that we know rather than teams that have just been formed or strengthened, like CSC and Mercury.” He added, “The door isn’t closed to anyone — either French or foreign teams. It is up to them to convince us. To be convincing, there is a certain chemistry, to see their results, their comportment, their potential….”
So, despite the high budgets and high UCI point totals of Coast, CSC and Mercury, preference was given to the low-budget, low-point totals of French teams AG2R, Bonjour and Jean Delatour. Leblanc explained, “We wanted to give a sign to French cycling, to give it a helping hand at a time when it needs it.” Also pre-selected were the France’s three Division 1 teams Cofidis, Crédit Agricole and Festina.
Regarding the omission of Pantani’s Mercatone Uno squad from the 16 teams named Tuesday, Leblanc said. “His team depends entirely on him, and we still don’t know where he’s at. For the moment, there is lots of uncertainty about him.”
With the possible absence of 1998 winner Pantani in what will be an ultra-mountainous Tour, the Tour will be much less spectacular. But, as in the past, when the little Italian has his back against the wall, he seems to perform better. But what can he prove to Leblanc and his cohorts before the end of April? All he can show is that he is healthy, and the chance to show off his climbing skills will be limited to stage races like the Spain’s Tour of Murcia (March 7-11) or Tour of the Basque Country (April 9-13).
No such pressure will be on the Tour’s other former winners Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) and Jan Ullrich (Telekom), whose teams are among the pre-selections. The other eight teams chosen are the new Belgian squad Domo-Farm Frites (with world champion Romans Vainsteins and American Freddy Rodriguez); Spanish trifecta Banesto (José Maria Jiménez), Kelme-Costa Blanca (Santiago Botero) and ONCE (Abraham Olano); Italy’s Fassa Bortolo (whose leader Francesco Casagrande is not riding the Tour), Lampre-Daikin (with enigmatic Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke) and Mapei-Quick Step (with Michele Bartoli); and the Netherlands’ Rabobank (led by Michael Boogerd).