By Andrew Hood
Lance Armstrong’s toughest Tour de France competition could be comingfrom south of the Pyrenees if results the past few weeks are any indication.With Jan Ullrich out with knee surgery and top Italians StefanoGarzelli and Gilberto Simoni afoul with doping problems, thedoor is wide open for a Spanish revival.Following the 1-2 finish at the Classique des Alpes by Kelme’s Santiago Botero, a Colombian on the Spanish squad and his Spanish teammate Oscar Sevilla on Saturday and ONCE’s sweeps at the Tour of Germany and the Bicicleta Vasca over the weekend, Armstrong couldhave his hands full fighting off a swarm of Spanish teams and riders.Sevilla and Botero could be the most dangerous combination. Sevillafinished second at the 2001 Vuelta a Espana and shined during his Tourdebut last year. Botero, a proven climber who sacrificed some of his attackingabilities to improve his time trialing skills, seems to have found theright balance.Ibanesto.com has had a phenomenal year, its best since the Indurainglory days, winning a string of Spanish stage races this spring. The questionremains whether the team can stretch that winning form from five days tothree weeks.ONCE also has a double-edged threat with Joseba Beloki and IgorGonzalez de Galdeano, winner of the Tour of Germany on Sunday.Third-place overall at the past two Tours, Beloki just scored his firstmajor victory of the season Sunday in the Bicicleta Vasca, winning a toughmountain stage.Beloki won the difficult climbing stage that concluded the BicicletaVasca, also called the Euskal Bizikleta in the tongue-twisting Basque language,a remarkable feat considering Beloki was in quite poor form in early Aprilat the Vuelta a Pais Vasco.Beloki’s so strong; in fact, neither he nor Galdeano will be racingin next week’s Volta a Cataluyna, the final warm-up race that most of thetop Spanish riders use to tweak their form going into the Tour.”Joseba is going to arrive in very good condition to the Tour. Josebaand Igor will be training from home,” ONCE’s director Manolo Saiz toldDiario Vasco. “We’ve sacrificed the beginning of the season to be inthe best shape possible for the Tour.”The ONCE sweep this weekend, with Galdeano taking the overall at theTour of Germany and Mikel Zarrabeitia is an important stepping stone forthe boys in yellow and black.”The days of winning 50 races a year are over. We used to have (Laurent)Jalabert or (Alex) Zülle, who could race at 70 percent and still win20 races a year. Now our racers have to be at 90-percent strength to havea chance,” Saiz said.Tour of Germany (June 3-9)
1. Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Sp), ONCE, 28 hours, 55 minutes, 36 seconds;2. Aitor Garmendia (Sp), Coast, at 17 seconds; 3. Tobias Steinhauser (G),Gerolsteiner, at 37 secondsBicicleta Vasca (Jun 5-9)
1. Mikel Zarrabeitia (Sp), ONCE, 19 hours,44 minutes, 33 seconds; 2. Raimondas Rumsas (Lit), Lampre, at 11 seconds;3. Jose Azevedo (P), ONCE, at 49 secondsVentoux next at Dauphine
Armstrong revisits the climb up Mont Ventoux in Tuesday’s second stageof the Criterium du Dauphine Libere. Featured in stage 14 of this year’sTour de France, the climb up Ventoux will be one of the last public benchmarksof Armstrong’s form going into the Tour. The three-time Tour champion iscoming off of his victory at Midi Libre in May and likely won’t race againuntil the July 6 start of the 2002 Tour. Speaking with Reuters this week,Armstrong said he can’t count on an easy victory at this year’s Tour.”It would be sheer madness, suicidal, a very bad karma and a total lackof respect for the difficulties and the parameters of the race, the falls,the tactics, the other teams,” he told the wire service. “You must neverexpect to win. But I expect to be very strong, very motivated, to takeadvantage of my experience, to have a solid team, and I will try to capitalizeon that.”Joining Armstrong this week at Dauphine are Floyd Landis, looking strongto make the Tour team for U.S. Postal Service, and Viatcheslav Ekimov,who “retired” last fall before deciding he wasn’t done yet. The Dauphinerace marked the Russian’s first major race start since GP San Franciscolast summer. Credit Agricole’s Jonathan Vaughters is also racing at theFrench race, which concludes Sunday in Geneva, Switzerland.Ullrich back for more
Jan Ullrich refuses to throw in the towel. Speaking to German newspapers,Ullrich began his rehabilitation of his knee, which was operated on inlate May in Germany.”I will attack the Tour again in 2003,” Ullrich said. “Next year, Iwant to wear the yellow jersey.”The Tour winner in 1997, Ullrich has never been able to live up to hishype although he’s never finished worse than second in the race. He missedthe 1999 Tour after crashing out with injuries before the race startedand announced early last month pain in his knee would keep him out of the2002 Tour. Despite the setbacks, the 2000 Olympic champion vows to fighton.”I am 20 to 30 percent of maximum fitness. I would love to start trainingon the bike, but I have some light swelling in my joint. After that isfinished, it will be OK,” he said. “I must have patience and hard work;I will come into the winning form again.”Ullrich is working out at the Reha Clinic in Tergensee, where he isundergoing sessions with physical therapist Knut Stamer in the pool, lightweight workouts and stretching exercises.”I do not want to stop before I win another grand tour,” he said.Racing this week
The Dauphine dominates the Euro schedule this week. The race continuesthrough Sunday in France. The 54th Bank Austria Tour set for June 10-16features a competitive field, but defending champion Cadel Evans won’tbe back.Evans, fresh off his success at the Giro where he wore the pink jerseyfor one day, is taking a break before returning to racing in the comingweeks. The Volta Ciclista a Cataluyna (June 17-23) and the Tour de Suisse(June 18-27) headline the schedule early next week in the final lead-upto the Tour de France.