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Analysis: Gerolsteiner and T-Mobile both make a mark on stage 14

Moments after Sunday’s stage finish at the ski station of Ax-3-Domaines, Gerolsteiner’s Georg Totschnig lay collapsed on the ground, completely exhausted after a breakaway effort of more than 200 kilometers. The only thing the 34-year-old Austrian could do was weep for joy. He had just made a dream come true. “This is unbelievable,“ Totschnig said as he fought to catch his breath. "A few days ago, I didn’t think I would even make it to Paris.” It was not until Gerolsteiner soigneur Klaus Thünemann helped Totschnig to his feet that the man from the Zillertal valley in Tyrol began to grasp

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By Sebastian Moll and Alexander Heflik, Special to VeloNews

Moments after Sunday’s stage finish at the ski station of Ax-3-Domaines, Gerolsteiner’s Georg Totschnig lay collapsed on the ground, completely exhausted after a breakaway effort of more than 200 kilometers. The only thing the 34-year-old Austrian could do was weep for joy. He had just made a dream come true.

“This is unbelievable,“ Totschnig said as he fought to catch his breath. “A few days ago, I didn’t think I would even make it to Paris.” It was not until Gerolsteiner soigneur Klaus Thünemann helped Totschnig to his feet that the man from the Zillertal valley in Tyrol began to grasp what he had just done and what his team had accomplished. That Levi Leipheimer came in fifth made this Saturday a German feast with Austrian-American touches in the French-Spanish border region.

“I think this is the greatest day in the history of our team,” said directeur Hans Hilczer. As recent as on the rest day in Grenoble, a Georg Totschnig racing at his best had seemed an impossibility. Totschnig had felt completely out of shape, unable to hold the tempo of the peloton in the Vosges. He admitted to being frightened of the Alps, the mountains he grew up in. Flu during the Tour du Suisse had all but destroyed his preparation.

“My morale was completely down,” he said. “I just wanted go home to my wife and kids.” It was his family that his first salute went to in the greatest moment of his career. They had been following the stage from in their home in Mayrhofen. The viewing was nothing for the faint of heart.

“On the last kilometers,” Totschnig recalled, “I shut off my brain, I just pedaled and pedaled, I couldn’t even zip up my jersey any more at the finish line.” It was to have their sponsor’s logo on television during a big mountain stage that Gerolsteiner had hired Levi Leipheimer as a co-captain for the Tour. Totschnig and Leipheimer had gone into the Tour with equal privileges, but Totschnig soon conceded he was the weaker of the two … but it was that “weaker” man who stole the show on Saturday.

In any case, Gerolsteiner could not complain about a lack of presence in the media on Saturday. The cameras either were on Totschnig or a very elite chase group, one that Leipheimer fought tenaciously to stay with until 5km before the finish. Where now, T-Mobile?
Just as was the case after his seventh place overall in the Tour last year, Totschnig refused to talk about his years at T-Mobile. Totschnig had been on the roster of the 1997 team that helped Ullrich win the Tour but in subsequent years had been cut from the Tour roster to make room for supposedly stronger riders.

On Saturday, as last year in the Pyrénées, Totschnig was stronger than the man he was deemed unfit even to serve at T-Mobile: Jan Ullrich. But Totschnig is not a man to bite back. All he would say, over and again, was that this was the greatest day in his career, the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Totschnig, like Bobby Julich, Paolo Savoldelli and Santiago Botero, is showing his potential only after leaving T-Mobile.

Meanwhile, Ullrich turned in a performance many didn’t think him capable of. Before the Tour hit the Pyrénées, team director Walter Godefroot declared that he had lost confidence in the 1997 Tour winner.

“Is Ullrich ever going to win the Tour again?” Godefroot responded to a reporter last week. “Do you seriously want me to even answer that question?”

Ulrich himself, however, continued to declare that the Tour was far from over and that he would continue attacking. After Saturday’s stage he reaffirmed his resolve.

“Nothing is changing. I am attacking until Paris,” he said. “This was our first attack; on Sunday, we will attack Lance again.”

Before Saturday, such statements seemed almost delusional. But now, T-Mobile seems to be back in the game. Ullrich rests in fourth place, in good position to take a shot at the podium. Before the Pyrénées, team manager Mario Kummer had said that the podium remains a realistic goal for the team, adding, however, that the goal of putting Armstrong under pressure no longer seemed realistic. Despite that assessment, his riders took a different stand. Ullrich and Vinokourov continued to talk about attacking Armstrong. Nonetheless, there remains a degree of confusion about goals and tactics at T-Mobile as it continues to challenge despite an absence of the sort of leadership that can motivate a team to operate as one. At least one thing seems clear after the stage to Ax 3 Domaines – Ullrich is now the No. 1 man. Like last year, he seems to be getting more and more into shape as the Tour goes along. Maybe something else contributes to the fact that he is now beginning to live up to his own expectations.

He is 4:35 down and no one seriously expects him to have a shot at the yellow jersey. Paradoxically, this has always been the situation in which Ullrich was most dangerous – when there was no pressure. That was the case in the 2003 Tour. It was also the case when he won the Vuelta in 1999. After everyone has given up on Ullrich, he steps up and surprises his everyone.

Oftentimes, however, the resurgence comes just a little too late for that really big coup.