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T-Mobile’s triumvirate hopes to take Armstrong down at last
By Gilles Le Roch
With a little bit of luck, T-Mobile will arrive at the 2005 Tour withits full weaponry in place and finely honed. The German powerhouse hopesto wage a three-front war on Lance Armstrong, spearheaded by perennialTour contender Jan Ullrich and buttressed by a resurgent Andreas Klödenand the ever-combative Alexander Vinokourov. And if all goes accordingto plan, T-Mobile hopes its time to bring down Armstrong may have finallycome.
“I’ve been trying for a long time to prove that there is strength innumbers, but I’ve never been able to get everything to come together,”says T-Mobile team manger Walter Godefroot. “Ullrich was absent one year,then Vinokourov the next. I’m crossing my fingers. Since the cohabitationof Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis [at my Telekom team] in 1996 and 1997, I’veknown that it’s possible to get strong personalities to work together.”
The commanding crew has certainly appeared like-minded in the earlyseason. Since the beginning of winter, all three riders have crafted theirseasons around the Tour de France. Vinokourov held back at the beginningof the season and voluntarily trained less before Paris-Nice, which hehas won twice before. Klöden has had mixed results, but he hasn’tdug into his physical reserves. And Ullrich has pedaled along in relativeanonymity, shedding his winter weight early, competing little, and justriding tempo at his few springtime races.
That quiet approach created an unusual marketing problem for T-Mobile.With three of its biggest winners holding out for July, the team rode theearly season in obscurity, overshadowed by successes of some its biggestrivals. It wasn’t until April 24 that one of the squad’s riders finallycame up with a win.
But what a victory it was! Vinokourov raced brilliantly that day, takinga very intense edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège afterhe and CSC veteran Jens Voigt held off a charging field over the final40km. After wiping away tears of joy, Vinokourov, who has always dreamtof dominating at Liège, immediately made it clear what matters toT-Mobile: “This victory will really boost my confidence for the Tour.”
ULLRICH THE ASSASSIN
“In our hearts and those of our riders, Jan remains our sole team leader,”affirms Godefroot, who will be managing the German squad at the Tour forthe final time. “He is potentially the one with the best chance of beatingArmstrong. Vinokourov and Klöden are his lieutenants, but in theirown right, they know how to take advantage of opportunities.”
That hierarchy is underscored by Ullrich’s impressive, albeit surelyinfuriating record. To put that record into perspective, consider this:In 2004, Ullrich had his worst-ever Tour in the seven years he has riddenthe race, and he still finished fourth overall. Thanks to his consistencyat the Tour — he won once (1997) and took second five times (1996, 1998,2000, 2001 and 2003) — Armstrong still refers to Ullrich as his “greatestenemy.”
Ullrich kept quiet during this off-season, presumably refocusing hisenergy and training regimen after his disappointing 2004 Tour. He finallyshowed up for competition in early April looking confident and trim atthe Circuit de la Sarthe, where a solid performance augured well for therest of the season. Unlike previous years, when he had to focus on losinga surplus of weight, Ullrich kept the weight off over the winter, whichallowed him to spend more of his time on quality training this year.
At 31, the champion from Rostock has finally come to understand thathe no longer has time to lose. Now that cycling has become a true occupationfor him, he will come to the Tour start in the Vendée region withthe heart of an assassin. In the past, he was almost always in a positionto create problems for Armstrong, despite all of his setbacks and bad choices.So, in 2005, he will be THE challenger.
KLÖDEN THE SILENT KILLER
Klöden’s role will likely be quite different than that of histeam’s patron. When both men are in top form, Klöden is a touch weakerthan Ullrich on nearly every type of terrain. But, as he learned last year,if he’s persistent, he could find himself in a position to stand up andtake charge.
“In the  La Mongie stage, Jan wasn’t feeling very good, and Andreasdidn’t know what to do,” remembers Godefroot. “Should he go with the leadersor wait for Ullrich? Obviously, we told him to stay with the strongmenin order to preserve a good place in the general classification. Knowingthat he is naturally gifted in both the mountains and in time trials, itwould have been stupid to undermine his chances.” And good thing: Klödenwent on to take second place overall, finishing 6:19 down from the untouchableArmstrong.
Assuming that Ullrich doesn’t crack on this year’s first big climb inthe Alps, Klöden will likely spend much of his time setting pace forUllrich and positioning his team leader for an attack. He will also factorinto strategic breakaways, trying to get away from the bunch for eithera stage win or to play a late-day support role when the big guns finallycatch up.
In its preparation for the Tour this year, the T-Mobile squad did experienceone small crisis: Klöden asked the management to omit sprinter ErikZabel from the team roster and replace him with another teammate to supporthim and Ullrich in the mountains. The request — not a great way to treatthe man whose consecutive green jerseys pretty much held things togetherat T-Mobile for the last six years — was not well received. “That’s Andreas’sproblem; he speaks without thinking,” said a dismissive Godefroot, “IfErik Zabel weren’t at the Tour de France, it would be based solely on adecision made by his directeur sportif, Mario Kummer, or Erik himself.If he’s there, Klöden will still have six teammates to work for him— with the stipulation that [Klöden is on top form], of course.”
The Tour is the 31-year-old Kazakh Vinokourov’s fantasy. One of themost aggressive riders in the peloton, he glimpsed his chances of one daywinning the world’s biggest bike race during the centennial edition. Inthat 2003 race, he launched an audacious attack in stage 9 and poweredto a solo win in Gap. Six days later, another brutal assault, this timeon the Peyresourde, netted Vino some precious seconds that would add upto his best-ever finish in Paris, a third-place spot on the podium. Sadly,a bad fall in the Tour of Switzerland kept him out of the 2004 Tour.
Judging by his inspired ride and post-race comments at Liège-Bastogne-Liège,Vinokourov is fully recovered for 2005 and hungry to make up for last year’slost opportunity. Expect T-Mobile to capitalize on the Kazakh’s combativenature, sending him up the road at every chance to force Armstrong andhis Discovery Channel engine to defend.
“If Armstrong continues to think that Ullrich is still his onlyadversary,” muses Godefroot, “surely an attack by ‘Vino’ will initiallyleave him somewhat paralyzed. It’s true that he is well protected withPopovych, Azevedo, Savoldelli, Beltran and Rubiera at his side, and it’strue that he has a reputation for not committing any errors in the race.But it’s certainly not written anywhere that we can’t push him to makea mistake. And Vinokourov can function as a detonator!”
English translation by Mark Deterline, May 2005.