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Analysis: T-Mobile unravels in the Alps

Saturday’s stage from Pforzheim to Gerardmer had been so heartening for T-Mobile. It looked like a demonstration of how to unsettle Lance Armstrong and promised an exciting battle in the Alps. After six years, it seemed, a team had finally been formed that could dethrone the Texan, and understood exactly what it takes. On the slopes of the ski station of Courchevel in the Savoy Alps, however, T-Mobile’s hopes were shattered. Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden lost two minutes and 17 seconds on the Discovery Channel captain and the day’s winner, Alejandro Valverde. Alexandre Vinokourov lost five

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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews

Ullrich is now the team leader - but is there a team to lead?

Ullrich is now the team leader – but is there a team to lead?

Photo: Graham Watson

Saturday’s stage from Pforzheim to Gerardmer had been so heartening for T-Mobile. It looked like a demonstration of how to unsettle Lance Armstrong and promised an exciting battle in the Alps. After six years, it seemed, a team had finally been formed that could dethrone the Texan, and understood exactly what it takes.

On the slopes of the ski station of Courchevel in the Savoy Alps, however, T-Mobile’s hopes were shattered. Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden lost two minutes and 17 seconds on the Discovery Channel captain and the day’s winner, Alejandro Valverde. Alexandre Vinokourov lost five minutes, 18 seconds. T-Mobile is no longer in a position to battle for the overall Tour victory.

The biggest disappointment was Vinokourov, who was the first of the T-Mobile Three to lose contact with the leaders. Before the Alps, Armstrong had deemed the Kazakh champion his most dangerous rival. Arriving in Courchevel, Vinokourov said that he “just hadn’t felt free” today, most likely a metaphor in his native tongue for having bad legs.

T-Mobile team doctor Lothar Heinrich said the only explanation he could offer was an error in nutrition.

“He should have been able to ride along with Lance, Rasmussen, Valverde and Mancebo,” said Heinrich. “He has certainly got the form.”

Whatever the problem, it was just another example of T-Mobile’s poor preparation and racing during the first week. Vino’s implosion, Ullrich’s two crashes and Andreas Klöden’s overtraining can be seen as a series of misfortunes – but to Armstrong and his team, these things just don’t happen. If they make a mistake, it never adds up to disaster, as it does with the T-Mobile team, over and again. As Johan Bruyneel says: “Luck comes to those who seek it.”

Ullrich, who is now 4:04 behind Armstrong on GC, refused to blame his crash on Sunday for his performance today, just as he had refused to blame the consequences of the crash before the start of the Tour for his prologue performance.

“The crash was no handicap for me today, I would have lost just as much time without it”, he said. “I felt good until Lance attacked but then my legs just shut down. Still, I think this was not a major breakdown, I was able to limit my losses.”

If this was no major breakdown, however, then neither was last year’s stage to La Mongie, where he lost the Tour. That day he was two minutes and 30 seconds slower than Armstrong; today it was 2:14. Unlike last year, however, Klöden, who does not have the form he had in 2004, waited for Ullrich and guided the visibly suffering 1997 Tour winner to the finish. Ullrich is now in eighth place overall, Klöden in ninth, Vinokourov has slipped to 16th place, trailing by 6:32.

“We weren’t winners today,” said T-Mobile team director Olaf Ludwig, stating the obvious. Nonetheless, T-Mobile continues to say that the Tour is not yet lost.

“I will keep on fighting,” said Ullrich, who was reinstated as the team’s leader on Tuesday, albeit not in the way that he may have envisioned to be before the Tour – as a contender.

“Last year I also kept getting better toward the end,” the big German said, clinging to the last bit of hope he has left.

Armstrong also refused to write off T-Mobile.

“We had a bad day on Saturday, they had a bad day today,” he said. “But I am the last guy to underestimate them.”

That, of course, is in keeping with Armstrong’s attitude toward the race. He never underestimates anyone, and that is one of the many reasons why he continues winning.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, seems to have overestimated itself. To be caught off guard on a medium-difficulty stage such as Saturday’s is one thing. To lose major time on the first serious mountain stage is another.

What happened on Tuesday was decisive. The T-Mobile riders will have a hard time even approaching the podium, no matter how hard they try to keep hope alive among the German media, the German fans and maybe even among themselves.

The reality of this Tour is that it has produced an entirely new set of names with which to reckon. Speaking of climbing up to Courchevel with Rasmussen, Mancebo and Valverde, Armstrong said, “When I looked around, I saw the future of cycling.”

And there was not a German, much less a T-Mobile rider, among them.