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By Jean Montois, Agence France Presse
Tour de France great Bernard Hinault, one of the five riders to win the race five times, said he feels that Germany’s 1997 winner Jan Ullrich is heading for oblivion on the race he once dominated.
Ullrich, who rides for T-Mobile, is heading for another runner-up place to go with the five he has already after two days of painfully trying to keep up with American five-time winner Lance Armstrong.
US Postal leader Armstrong turned up the tempo during two tough days in the Pyrenees, a tempo which Ullrich found hard to match and which left him seven minutes adrift of his rival.
Hinault, who in 1997 signaled the beginning of an Ullrich era on the race, now believes that a second victory may forever elude the 30-year-old Olympic champion as a whole bunch of exciting new riders make their mark.
“When he won the Tour for the first time, he was streets ahead of everbody,” said Hinault when asked if he was disappointed with Ullrich’s performance. “But he’s made a lot of mistakes in his career, and there’s the problem of his excess weight in the winter with the result that he’s never been at the same level again.
“So, yes, I’m a little disappointed,” Hinault continued. “When you look at everything that’s gone on for the past five or six years, you ask yourself the question (if he can win it again). The day that Armstrong stops, Ullrich will be over 30 years old and other, younger riders will be there.”
Italian Ivan Basso, of CSC, is currently in third place on the Tour and is a former winner of the race’s white jersey for the best rider under 25-years-old.
Australia’s Michael Rogers, of Quick Step, will also be a contender in around two years’ time, as could Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego, the recent winner of the Giro d’Italia.
“There’s Basso and also Valverde and Cunego, who won the Giro with panache,” added Hinault. “All three of them seem to have character, and they won’t be giving anything away for free. He (Ullrich) won’t find it easy.”
As Armstrong continues his march towards a probable record of six victories on the race, Ullrich – who seemed to signal his form with victory on the Tour of Switzerland in June – is facing the possibility of finishing further down than second for the first time in his six Tours de France.
For Hinault, there’s only one solution – stay focused throughout the entire year, and avoid those winter excesses which has seen Ullrich put on several kilos of excess weight.
“I have asked myself if he really did enough to be ready for the Tour,” added Hinault. “He was riding great on the Tour of Switzerland and then we didn’t hear a thing about him.
“You can say what you want about having too much weight. When you put on weight, you have to lose it and to do that you have to ride more, tire yourself out more.
“I went a bit wild myself one winter, and straight away I noticed the difference. After that, the most I put on was two or three kilos, no more. Otherwise, it just became far too difficult.”