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A look ahead: T-Mobile on the march

The Tour never lies. So when Lance Armstrong’s teammates all reported absent during the critical stages of the Col de la Schlucht climb on Saturday, the six-time defending champion had to be concerned. “It was a shitty day,” Armstrong told French television Saturday evening. “Perhaps the team and the boys on the team were too confident … after we did well at the prologue, and won the team time trial. Everyone shows up at the Tour and wants to win, but there are no guarantees.” The one certainty on Saturday was that Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team did show up to win. Armstrong himself had to

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By John Wilcockson

Sunday's stage offers up plenty of challenges.

Sunday’s stage offers up plenty of challenges.

Photo:

The Tour never lies. So when Lance Armstrong’s teammates all reported absent during the critical stages of the Col de la Schlucht climb on Saturday, the six-time defending champion had to be concerned. “It was a shitty day,” Armstrong told French television Saturday evening. “Perhaps the team and the boys on the team were too confident … after we did well at the prologue, and won the team time trial. Everyone shows up at the Tour and wants to win, but there are no guarantees.”

The one certainty on Saturday was that Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team did show up to win. Armstrong himself had to cover the third attack by Alex Vinokourov, while Andreas Klöden’s solo move netted him 39 seconds and a place in the top 10 on GC. His time gain was more important than the stage win — although losing the sprint to Dutchman Pieter Weening by just 9mm must have been a bitter pill for Klöden to swallow, especially in light of his narrow defeat to Armstrong at Le Grand Bornand at the 2004 Tour.

Looking ahead to Sunday’s stage, several questions need to be answered: Can Discovery regroup and properly defend Armstrong’s yellow jersey on a day of six climbs? Can T-Mobile again go on the attack and force Armstrong on the defensive? Or can Ivan Basso’s CSC team take advantage of the rivalry between T-Mobile and Discovery, and put another of its riders in the yellow jersey?

With a rest day coming up on Monday, we can expect plenty of action. The 171km stage, which twists and turns through the Vosges mountains, crosses six passes (four Cat. 3s, a Cat. 2 and a Cat. 1) and saves the hardest for last. The 9km, 7-percent Ballon d’Alsace is this Tour’s first Cat. 1 climb, mainly being given that designation because this is the 100th anniversary of the Tour including the Ballon d’Alsace as its first-ever serious climb.

In 1905. Frenchman René Pottier rode everyone off his wheel on a 299km stage between Nancy to Besançon. Don’t expect anyone to make a solo break this year though. All the favorites again will want to be in the front group that emerges from the mountains, though an early breakaway has a better chance of success on this shorter stage.

On completing the last downhill from the Ballon d’Alsace, there are still 43km to ride in the valley before reaching the finish in Mulhouse. There’s sure to be some regrouping and perhaps a late, successful counterattack.

The last time a climbing stage through the Vosges ended in Mulhouse was in 1992, when an about-to-retire Laurent Fignon broke clear on the Grand Ballon climb, which is closer to the finish than the Ballon d’Alsace, to score a solo stage win by 12 seconds.

Mulhouse is also where, in the 2000 Tour, Armstrong scored his only stage win, beating Ullrich by 25 seconds in the 58.5km time trial from Freiburg. That’s a great memory for the Texan. This year, he’ll be happy just to have some teammates with him as they ride into town. As for the stage win, expect a small field sprint, which Valverde or Aussie Brad McGee has a great chance of taking.