Tour de France 2020

VN Archives: Bobby’s still climbing

John Wilcockson, writing from Paris at the conclusion of the 1998 Tour de France, reflects on Bobby Julich's trials and tribulations en route to third overall.

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If Bobby Julich has a motto, it just might be that of the Boy Scouts of America: “Be Prepared.” This was nowhere more evident than at the Tour’s first long time trial at Corrèze — where Julich placed third and moved into third place overall.

The day before the TT, he spoke about some of his preparations. “Last year, in the time trial at Disneyland Paris, I ran out of water. I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll also take three or four gels — one up each sleeve of my skinsuit and others tucked in the shorts — and make sure I don’t miss my bottle at the feed. I drink a lot in time trials.”

When Julich finished that time trial, he had a soigneur waiting for him with a sponge, tights, and long-sleeve top. After talking with journalists for a few moments, he headed to his team car, where his bike was hitched up onto a wind trainer, so he could warm down and continue talking to the press.

As Julich told VeloNews at the end of last year’s Tour, being prepared — and looking after yourself — are critical ingredients for doing well in the Tour, and a major reason for his own success.

“This sort of race is my thing,” Julich said, after placing 17th in the 1997 Tour de France, and with a ninth-place in the 1996 Vuelta a España behind him. “The three-week race, where the little things you do at the beginning — making sure you have your own bottles, your own recovery drinks, your amino acids, taking your vitamins, getting to bed, putting on an extra jersey, dry jersey — all that stuff totally adds up at the end of three weeks… And you can see that guys are getting coughs, sniffles, their muscles are aching, because they’re not eating the right stuff.”

Every day at this year’s Tour, Julich stuck to a strict daily regimen, even when he was in great demand from the media. And after every road stage, Julich made a beeline for his team camper van, going inside to clean up and put on dry clothes before reappearing to talk to television, radio, and newspaper reporters.

Screenshot of original article with Julich making a face

Julich plans his personal life with the same perfectionism and attention to detail. Even when he went to a jeweler in Philadelphia just before the Tour, to buy an engagement ring with his California girlfriend of six years, Angela Morgan, he told her he wanted to wait before putting it on her finger.

“He waited until we were back in France, and then took me to a romantic place in Provence, to do it,” Morgan, a teacher, revealed. “Bobby has to do things just right. He’s always been like that.”

By doing things “just right,” Julich exceeded even his own high aspirations, to share the podium in Paris at the end of his second Tour de France with two men whom he described as “the best in the world from the last two years.”

Back in Dublin, before the start of the Tour, the 26-year-old Cofidis rider had said that “a place in the top 10” was his goal — although privately he had bigger plans. He was well on his way when he finished fourth in the prologue, in the same second as Jan Ullrich and Laurent Jalabert. After that outstanding ride, Julich said, “Don’t expect to see me again until the next time trial.” But while he may have been anonymous for the rest of the opening week, Julich always made sure he finished stages in the first part of the peloton. He learned last year — when he lost a lot of time in crashes that split the field before sprint finishes — that it’s very easy to lose a few seconds, and very hard to earn them back.

Once into the Pyrénées, Julich was expecting to ride second fiddle to his Italian teammate Francesco Casagrande. What he wasn’t expecting was that last year’s sixth-place finisher would crash in fog, descending the Tour’s first major mountain, the Aubisque, and have to quit.

Julich immediately took on the responsibility of Cofidis team leader, yet regretted the Italian’s absence. “We would be much more dangerous to our rivals if Francesco were still in the race. He’s by far our best climber…” said the Coloradan, when discussing his team’s tactics for the following stages.

Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, and Bobby Julich stand together on the podium, with Julich laughing

That same respectful awareness of teamwork was evident after Julich finished third on stage 11’s mountaintop finish at Plateau de Beille, taking seven seconds out of Ullrich in the final sprint. When Julich was asked (incredibly) why he didn’t attack, “I said I was going to be conservative, and there will be more opportunities (to attack),” he related, “but not with my teammate Roland Meier up the road. This is a team sport, not one of individuals.”

Statements like that have earned Julich great respect in the Cofidis camp, where he seems at ease after a first season on the French team that didn’t come easy, following two years with Motorola. Part of his assimilation has been the American’s progress in speaking French, even if he still uses the occasional English word.

In English, Julich is a fountain of information for the press, as he is never afraid to speak out. A fine example came the morning after the 17th stage, when the riders protested police treatment of the TVM riders. After signing on, Julich started to ride toward the village — part of his daily ritual — but he never made it. A journalist stopped him for a chat, and Julich started giving his views on the crisis in the peloton. Soon, another reporter came, then another; until, within five minutes, a bank of microphones and perhaps 50 journalists were noting down Julich’s words.

On the Champs-Elysées, Julich was asked what he needs to do to progress from third place on the podium to first. The American said he will have to work on his climbing strength, and improve his power for the time trials. He has made huge strides in both disciplines in a year — since first realizing he could match the best in the mountains on the 1997 Tour stage to Morzine, and then the top time trialists at Disneyland Paris.

Explaining his improved riding against the clock, Julich said, “I’m confident in my abilities now. I used to have a little voice in my head saying, ‘Hey, maybe you won’t be able to push that gear, or carry that speed…’ But that’s changed. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

The one thing that hasn’t changed is Julich’s attitude. If he were to win the Tour, no doubt his victory speech would already be prepared.