Final Countdown

The wait is over. the 2001 Tour de France starts in just one day, with the race favorites trying to ride safe until the first big tests in the mountains: L'Alpe d'Huez and the uphill time trial to Chamrousse. Here's a look at how the final-month preparations panned out for the top guns, as well as a look at some faces that will be missing from this year's race. Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) No crashes, no new media accusations and twin babies on the way (Kristin Armstrong is expecting in December); everything seemed to be going right for the Postal Service boss as he headed toward

The Tour’s major contenders…and those already counted out

By John Wilcockson

Armstrong

Armstrong

Photo: Graham Watson

Final Countdown

Final Countdown

Photo:

The wait is over. the 2001 Tour de France starts in just one day, with the race favorites trying to ride safe until the first big tests in the mountains: L’Alpe d’Huez and the uphill time trial to Chamrousse. Here’s a look at how the final-month preparations panned out for the top guns, as well as a look at some faces that will be missing from this year’s race.

Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service)

No crashes, no new media accusations and twin babies on the way (Kristin Armstrong is expecting in December); everything seemed to be going right for the Postal Service boss as he headed toward another yellow jersey defense. About the only thing that went wrong during Armstrong’s spring build-up was the crash of right-hand man Tyler Hamilton in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but even that was just a memory as the July 7 Tour start drew closer.

Armstrong placed second at the mountainous Classique des Alpes on June 9, and then headed to the Postal’s final Tour tune-up: the 10-day Tour of Switzerland, June 19-28. In the opening time trial, the Texan and his team showed they were right on target, placing four riders in the top 10 with Armstrong riding into the leader’s yellow jersey. If things could have gone any smoother for the American heading into the Tour, we don’t know how.

TOUR RECORD: 2000: 1st; 1999: 1st; 1996: DNF; 1995: 36th; 1994: DNF; 1993: DNF.

Jan Ullrich (Deutsche Telekom)

The man most likely to challenge Armstrong, Ullrich took a different approach to his Tour preparations this year. For the first time in his eight-year career, the German chose to ride the Giro d’Italia to get himself fit for the Tour. While his results were nothing to write home about (two third places in semi-mountain stages and 52nd overall), he definitely got in the training miles he was seeking, spending long stretches driving the pace at the front of the peloton on the flats and riding steadily over the high mountains of the Dolomites.

Following the Giro, Ullrich and three Telekom teammates retreated to the Alps for some Tour-specific training on the climbs, but he wasn’t able to completely escape the media spotlight. First, he had to explain that the drugs found in his room during the June 6 police blitz at the Giro were simply antihistamines he used to counteract asthma and allergies; and then, in mid-June, he was dogged by accusations raised by former Festina soigneur Willy Voet and former Festina team manager Bruno Roussel, who respectively claimed that no recent Tour winners had won without drugs, and that in the ’97 Tour Ullrich accepted a $15,000 bribe to lose the Courchevel stage to Richard Virenque. Ullrich flatly denied both allegations.

Casagrande

Casagrande

Photo: Graham Watson

TOUR RECORD: 2000: 2nd; 1998: 2nd; 1997: 1st; 1996: 2nd.

Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo)

After Casagrande crashed on stage 1 of the Giro, he set his sights on the overall at the Tour de France. He should be well recovered from his broken wrist, but when this year’s Giro played out, new questions emerged. Fassa Bortolo teammate Dario Frigo pulled out of the race after being caught in possession of banned drugs, and Wladimir Belli was tossed when he slugged a spectator, who turned out to be race leader Gilberto Simoni’s nephew. With all of the turmoil surrounding his team, and Italian cycling in general, Casagrande could have a tough time focusing on the Tour. He was undertaking six-hour training runs in his native Tuscany prior to his return to racing at the June 23-26 Route du Sud in the French Pyrénées.

TOUR RECORD: 1998: DNF; 1997: 6th.

Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski)

Like his former Festina teammate Christophe Moreau, the 27-year-old Beloki had a breakout Tour performance last year when he finished third behind Armstrong and Ullrich. Also like Moreau, there will be plenty of eyes on Beloki to see if he can repeat or improve on his 2000 performance. Beloki nearly pulled out a win at the May 30-June 3 Bicicleta Vasca in Spain, showing off his best climbing form. His final tune-up would be another Spanish race, the Tour of Catalonia, June 21-28.

TOUR RECORD: 2000: 3rd.

Christophe Moreau (Festina)

Moreau

Moreau

Photo: Graham Watson

Moreau put in the best finish by a French rider in three years last year, with his fourth place at the Tour, but there were still some questions about his ability to be a real contender for the overall. He answered most of those with his performance at the 2001 Dauphiné Libéré, where he showed the ability to ride up front in the high mountains, sticking with challenger Pavel Tonkov on the key alpine stage over the Croix-de-Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier passes.

TOUR RECORD: 2000: 4th; 1999: 27th; 1998: excluded for drugs; 1997: 19th; 1996: 75th.

Jonathan Vaughters (Crédit Agricole)

Vaughters showed his best form in two years in winning the difficult stage 4 time trial at the Dauphiné, but the effort proved a little bit too much on the harder-than-expected stage that followed. The American then dropped out on stage 6, but that still left him plenty of time to regroup at the Tour of Catalonia.

He headed into the Tour confident, but still with the thought in the back of his mind that he had crashed out of his first two Tours. “There’s the No. 1 goal for me in the Tour: finish the thing,” he said.

TOUR RECORD: 2000: DNF; 1999: DNF.

Bobby Julich (Crédit Agricole)

Like Vaughters, Julich struggled a bit at the Dauphiné Libéré, but he showed that he was strong by the finish of the eight-day race, in taking third place on the difficult, rain-affected final stage into Chambéry. The spring has been relatively quiet for the American, which may play into the hands of a rider who doesn’t particularly like the glare of the media spotlight.

TOUR RECORD: 2000: 48th; 1999: DNF; 1998: 3rd; 1997: 17th.

Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Daikin)

Following his victory at the Giro d’Italia, the Italian climber hinted that a bid for the Tour might be up next: “I have a month to recover … and I think that is enough. I like the course this year, since there is so much climbing, and I have a strong team.”

However, Simoni reconsidered in June, and rode the Tour of Switzerland to assist teammate Oskar Camenzind. But once that race began, he said he would see how he stacked up against Armstrong on the Swiss climbs – and that a Tour challenge was still a possibility.

TOUR RECORD: 1997: 116th; 1995: DNF.

They coulda been contendas (or not)

Oscar Freire (Mapei-Quick Step)

The former world champion has had a tough time with back and knee problems over the past two years. He looked to be back on form after a stage win at the Tour of Germany in May, but a viral infection had him in the hospital by mid-June, and his team announced that he would be a no-show at the Tour.

Floyd Landis, Chris Horner and Chris Wherry (Mercury-Viatel)

Along with depriving contenders like Pavel Tonkov and Chann McRae and potential stage winners Gord Fraser, Jans Koerts and Fabrizio Guidi of a spot in the Tour, the non-selection of Mercury also deprived U.S. fans of a chance to see some new American faces making their Tour debut. The Tour would never have been the same after a little Floyd….

Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

The young Basque has been the breakthrough climber of the season, winning the Midi Libre, the Classique des Alpes and the Galibier stage at the Dauphiné. But his team decided to hold the Mayo. He’s only 23, so watch out next year.

Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno)

The 1998 Tour winner fell foul of the Tour organizers’ decision to invite eight French teams to the race, and exclude Division I teams like Mercatone Uno, Saeco, Coast and Mercury-Viatel. Pantani says he will now focus on the Vuelta in September.

Pavel Tonkov (Mercury-Viatel)

The former Giro winner was to be Mercury’s top man in the American team’s first try at the Tour. Those plans fell through, though, when the team wasn’t among the 21 selected to start the race. Too bad. Tonkov and Mercury showed at the Dauphiné Libéré and Classique des Alpes that they would have made some noise at this year’s Tour.

Frank Vandenbroucke (Lampre-Daikin)

After his breakthrough classics campaign and Vuelta stage wins in 1999, everyone thought an assault on the Tour in 2000 would be next. That never materialized, as the star-crossed rider suffered through a suspension and personal problems. The explosive Belgian hinted at a return to the Tour in 2001, and his presence would have at least generated some excitement. But it was not to be. After a training crash in June, Vandenbroucke announced he was withdrawing from the Tour, and the Belgian press reported that he was close to splitting with the Lampre team.

Richard Virenque (no team)

Currently suspended for admitting to the use of banned drugs when racing for the Festina team, 1993-98.

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