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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
Ivan Basso was on Lance Armstrong’s original list of potential threats for the 2004 Tour de France, but he was not near the top of that list. He is now.
The former winner of the Tour’s Best Young Rider jersey has been the only man able to match Armstrong pedal stroke for pedal stroke over the past two days. Though the young Italian said he was forced to his limit to keep up on the final climb to Plateau de Beille, Armstrong didn’t have an overabundance of energy left when it came time to sprint either.
Sitting just 1:17 behind Armstrong is a man many believe represents the future of the Tour de France. At only 26 years of age, he has the chance to be a major player at the Tour for several years.
Time is not on the side of many of the pre-race favorites. Jan Ullrich is 30 years old, Armstrong is 32, Hamilton is 33, and Roberto Heras is 30. More important than their chronological age is the amount of time these men have been near the top of the sport. Athletes have a limited number of years when they can compete at their very best, and in cycling that seems to be about five or six years. Sure, professional cycling careers can last 10-15 years, but riders develop gradually over the first several years of that time and many stay in the sport for a few years after their best performances.
Ullrich, Armstrong, Hamilton, Heras and others are approaching the end of their most competitive years, and as we’ve seen in the past, there is a new crop of professionals coming into their own. The last time we saw such a drastic changing of the guard was in the mid 1990s when the era of Miguel Indurain, Claudio Chiappucci, and Giani Bugno ended.
Lance Armstrong is not ready to relinquish his spot at the top of the sport, though, and his performances thus far in the 2004 Tour de France show he is still the man to beat. He’s going to have his hands full, though, to open up a comfortable lead over Basso, T-Mobile’s Andreas Klöden, and Francisco Mancebo. To this point, Lance has not had to launch a serious attack; his US Postal Service team overpowered the rest of the peloton and reduced the leading group to just Armstrong and Basso on both of the big mountain stages in the Pyrenees.
As the race makes its way over to the Alps, Armstrong is going to have to go on the offensive to shed his newest challengers. And even though Ullrich may be 6:39 behind Armstrong in the overall classification, it would be a mistake to disregard him yet. The Alpine stages are very difficult and there is a long time trial directly after them. Ullrich has a flat stage and a rest day to recover, and that may be all the time he needs to adapt to the pressure of the Tour and come back with a vengeance. It won’t be the first time someone found his legs in the final week of the race.