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By Agence France Presse
Lance Armstrong may have distanced Jan Ullrich in the general classification of the Tour de France, but that will take nothing away from their impending duel on the 16th stage at L’Alpe d’Huez.
This year the race organizers have raised the temperatures for race fans who usually line the 21 hairpin bends of the 15km climb by turning the legendary mountain into a time trial.
The Alpe has welcomed the Tour 23 times since the race’s conception in 1903, and has been won by such cycling luminaries as Fausto Coppi, the Italian who came first in 1952 when it first featured amid a mood of skepticism, to U.S. Postal’s Armstrong, who won there in 2001.
The last rider to claim honors on the Alpe was Spaniard Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Mayo, despite being a pre-race favorite for the stage, pulled out of the race on Tuesday, a victim of the Pyrénées.
The second-to-last time trial of the Tour is taking an innovative approach, and it is expected that the battle between Armstrong and Ullrich will be close. In any case, it could be one of the highlights of the Tour, which will finish in Paris next Sunday.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, has been disappointing so far on the Tour and sits nearly seven minutes behind Armstrong. The 30-year-old T-Mobile rider will be hoping he can make a repeat of last year when he beat Armstrong in one of the race’s time trials.
Apart from Ullrich and Armstrong, however, a handful of other riders could realistically aim for the win, including Italian Ivan Basso (CSC), currently second overall, and Australia’s Michael Rogers (Quick Step), who is more at home on the longer time trials over undulating terrain, also fancies his chances.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Rogers said on Monday’s rest day.
Whoever fancies their chances, former pro Charly Mottet – who now designs the race route for the Dauphiné Libéré race in June – has affirmed it will need an extra special effort.
“Riding an uphill time trial is nothing like riding up the Alpe d’Huez on a normal stage,” he said. “This time, the riders will have to attack it straight off for around 30 minutes instead of approaching it after five or six hours in the saddle. I don’t expect to see big gaps. It should be tight, no more than a minute between Armstrong and Basso.”
The time trial begins in the town of Bourg d’Oisans and climbs at an average gradient of 7.9 percent. The second and third kilometers are the most difficult. The road becomes more forgiving in the remaining kilometers.