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A look ahead: Ullrich poised to challenge in TT

With nine riders still within four minutes of race leader Lance Armstrong, the Texan has never had such a strong challenge to win the Tour. Of these nine, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Alex Vinokourov, Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia all have a chance Friday to stay in close touch, even though stage 12 is Armstrong’s favorite event: the individual time trial. “It’s the most important time trial in the past five years because the GC is so close,” Armstrong said Thursday in Toulouse. “[The time trial] is not easy, nor very hard, with the wind and the heat. It’s a good course.” Armstrong’s

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By John Wilcockson

With nine riders still within four minutes of race leader Lance Armstrong, the Texan has never had such a strong challenge to win the Tour. Of these nine, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Alex Vinokourov, Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia all have a chance Friday to stay in close touch, even though stage 12 is Armstrong’s favorite event: the individual time trial.

“It’s the most important time trial in the past five years because the GC is so close,” Armstrong said Thursday in Toulouse. “[The time trial] is not easy, nor very hard, with the wind and the heat. It’s a good course.”

Armstrong’s ability to win a fifth Tour de France has been questioned in recent days. Reporters and other insiders have been saying that he has lost some of his strength in the mountains, that he has been weakened by crashes (at the Dauphiné and on stage 1 of the Tour) and sickness (a stomach virus before the Paris start), and that his team is weaker than years past.

The U.S. Postal-Berry Floor directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel has brushed off the criticism, saying that the his leader is wearing the yellow jersey for a reason, and that he will show his true form in the two time trials that take place in the Tour’s second half, on Friday and the day before the finish.

In comparison with other long time trials at the Tour in recent years, stage 12 is not as difficult on paper. The road surfaces are good, none of the several climbs are particularly hard, and at 47km, the distance is not overlong.

The course opens with a gradual climb out of Gaillac to a low plateau, which is followed by a sharp downhill and some technical turns through Cordes (24km) — a dramatic hilltop town built in medieval times. There follows a snaking 12km section up the Cérou valley to Monesties (39km), from where the day’s main climb rises 364 feet in about a mile, before the finish at Cap’Decouverte. This is a multi-sports park that has been converted from an opencast coalmine, once the biggest in Europe, at 750 deep and almost a mile wide.

Armstrong is still favored to win the time trial on a course that favors power riders. It should also be good for Hamilton (despite his fractured collarbone), Ullrich, 19th-placed David Millar and 41st-placed Michael Rogers. The big unknowns are the three men who immediately follow Armstrong in the overall classification: Vinokourov (only 21 seconds back), Mayo (at 1:02), and Francisco Mancebo (at 1:37).

Vinokourov has been a new rider this year, and his strong time trials that helped him win Paris-Nice in March and the Tour of Switzerland in June should inspire the solid Kazakh to concede less than 90 seconds to Armstrong at Cap’Decouverte.

Third-placed Mayo, who finished third to Armstrong in a similar, though much hillier time trial in June’s Dauphiné Libéré, could lose as much as two minutes on Friday. As for Mancebo, he admits that he rides like a diesel engine, solid but not fast out of the turns, and three minutes will probably be the amount he loses to the race leader.

Armstrong faces his stiffest opposition from Hamilton and Ullrich. The injured Hamilton is not making any predictions but he proved in the Alps that his heart, lungs and legs are working perfectly. And because Friday’s time trial doesn’t have too many turns or steep climbs, he will be able to maintain his momentum without needing to make too many sharp accelerations.

Ullrich has yet to beat Armstrong in a Tour time trial, but the German star has never looked as comfortable or pleased with his form as he has this week. The Bianchi team leader overcame a stomach virus going into the Alps, and his return to the Tour has been impressive. He could even beat Armstrong — if you believe the rumors of the Texan’s vulnerability.

Millar was narrowly beaten in the Paris prologue because of a faulty chainwheel setup, and he is keen to gain some revenge. He was second to Armstrong in the Dauphiné time trial, and beat the Texan three years ago in the 16.1km time trial at Futuroscope that started the 20o0 Tour. A good performance could help him toward his goal of placing top 10 in Paris.

As for Rogers, the young Aussie won impressively the Tour of Germany TT (over Ullrich) in May, and at the Tour du Sud last month. He is coming through his first Tour in good shape, and his goal Friday is to finish in the top five.

The riders start at two-minute intervals on Friday, with Armstrong the last to start, at 4:18 p.m. local time. Another hot day is forecast, with temperatures in the mid-90s and light winds that should be generally favorable in the afternoon.