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By John Wilcockson
All around Grenoble on Monday’s rest day at the Tour de France, team directors, riders and race followers were speculating what will happen in the crucial stage 10 through the Savoy Alps on Tuesday. There are two schools of thought: Either Lance Armstrong’s team will take control and deliver the Texan to the mountaintop finish at Courchevel in perfect shape; or there will be so many attacks, especially by Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile squad, that they will stretch Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team to its limit and completely open up the race.
“Somebody has to attack,” said Bjarne Riis, the manager of Ivan Basso’s CSC team. Because CSC has the yellow jersey on the broad shoulders of its German veteran Jens Voigt, Riis’s team leaders Basso and Bobby Julich can ride defensively and wait for the moment to counterattack — if they feel strong enough.
But Riis wasn’t giving anything away. “We’re strong, we’re rested and we’re ready to race,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell you our plan.” Perhaps he’s hoping that Tuesday’s stage will see a repeat of the first alpine stage at the 1996 Tour, when hot favorite Miguel Induráin “exploded” on the final climb to Les Arcs – which is just down the road from Courchevel — and Riis went on to win the Tour.
But Julich, who has raced with or against Armstrong since their days on the U.S. national junior team, isn’t expecting the six-time defending champion to show any weakness in the Alps. “Lance has a minute or two over everyone already, and to get that back sounds like a monstrous task,” he said, “and to actually get ahead of him is a totally different thing. So I definitely think that Lance is licking his lips for phase 2 of the Tour de France.”
Julich — who is sitting only 1:07 behind Armstrong on GC — said that after Tuesday’s stage, “We’ll know more of the ‘pretenders versus the contenders’ issue.” He then added, “I think it’s going to be a much more close-fought battle [than people expect].”
What was an almost unanimous opinion in Grenoble Monday was that T-Mobile’s Alex Vinokourov will attack on the road to Courchevel. Vinokourov, of course, repeatedly attacked at the 2003 Tour on his way to third place in Paris. What’s different this year is that Vino, Ullrich and last year’s runner-up Andreas Klöden are riding together on the same team at the Tour for the first time.
We all remember what happened when they got together at the Olympic road race in Sydney five years ago: The three broke away together and took all three medals, while Armstrong was behind in the pack, not realizing that there was a break until he saw the jumbo TV screen with Ulle, Vino and Klödi racing away to victory.
Armstrong and his team will be better informed at Courchevel, and they are certain to respond to any dangerous moves. What no one knows is who else will report “present” on this Tour’s first mountaintop finish.
Only two Tour stages have finished at Courchevel — which is a 22km zigzag climb with several pitches at 10 percent and an average grade of 6.2 percent on its way to a 6561-foot summit.
In 1997, Richard Virenque was “gifted” the stage win by race leader Ullrich at the end of a difficult day that saw Virenque’s Festina team attack on the first of three monster climbs. And in 2000, the late Marco Pantani scored the last major victory of his career with a solo attack to beat Spanish climbers José Maria Jimenez (also deceased) and Roberto Heras.
Heras (Liberty Seguros) is one of the climbers expected to be in prominent this week, along with Ullrich, Vinokourov andf Klöden of T-Mobile; Basso, Julich and Carlos Sastre of CSC; and Phonak’s Floyd Landis and Santiago Botero.
Others whose strength seems less certain include Levi Leipheimer and Georg Totschnig of Gerolsteiner; Francesco Mancebo and Vladimir Karpets of Illes Balears; Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi; Mick Rogers of Quick Step; Brad McGee of Française des Jeux; and Stefano Garzelli and Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas-Bianchi.
There could also be surprises caused by Tour rookies Alejandro Valverde of Illes Balears, Chris Horner of Saunier Duval-Prodir and Cadel Evans of Davitamon-Lotto
With almost 100km of flat roads preceding the first of stage 10’s two Cat. 1 climbs, the picturesque Cormet de Roseland, there will be plenty of time to contemplate the task ahead. That opening climb (20km at 6 percent) has a highly technical descent that has seen many crashes in the past — notably those in 1996 of main contender Alex Zülle and current Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel.
That dangerous downhill is followed by 32km on descending valley roads before the real action begins at the foot of Courchevel.