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By Neal Rogers
So here we are – the Tour de France starts Saturday. It’s almost hard to believe that after all the hype and buildup the race is actually set to begin. All the racers, team staff, officials, work crews, media and fans have been looking forward to this for months, and the start day is finally around the corner. I know we at VeloNews worked hard on our Tour de France guide, even if some of our readers’ pets don’t appreciate our efforts. Anyhow, buckle up, I think it’s going to be a good one this year.
With the exception of the unforgettable 2003 Tour, it seems as though for the past five years, there’s been plenty of talk in June about how the Tour is shaping up to be a great race with plenty of eager challengers, and by mid-July it’s usually a one-horse race with a certain Texan sitting pretty in yellow. And while I fully expect to see Lance Armstrong end his career with an seventh consecutive maillot jaune, I think this Tour could be the second-most exciting since 2003, when Armstrong rode across a field to avoid a crashing Joseba Beloki, melted down on the stage 12 time trial, was taken down by an errant musette bag and still went on to beat Jan Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
It’s hard to know whether Ullrich will show up race fit and ready to mount a serious challenge. He and his handlers have put up some pretty convincing pre-race talk, but they do the same thing every year. Honestly, doesn’t it seem as though Ullrich’s “I am more motivated than ever to beat Armstrong” sound bite gets recycled every spring? Doesn’t it also seem odd that his best Tour against Armstrong was in 2003, when he was riding for Bianchi after being cast out of his longtime Telekom squad? I don’t know what exactly motivates Ullrich, but it does seem odd that last year he returned to T-Mobile as the prodigal son, and for the first time in his career finished off the podium.
It’s also tough to determine how to read Ullrich’s performance at the Tour of Switzerland earlier this month. His time-trial win showed that he’s on track, but his riding in the mountains was less than convincing. While he is known to ride into shape during the first week of the Tour, I certainly didn’t expect to see Big Jan dropped on the final climb by a select group containing Michael Rogers (Quick Step) and American Chris Horner (Saunier Duval). Look for some surprising performances from Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile) and American Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), whom I am picking to finish on the podium.
Horner steps onto the big stage
I have to say I am really happy to see Horner headed to the Tour. He’s a great rider and a genuinely nice guy, he deserves a shot, and I know he’s going to leave his stamp on the world’s biggest bike race. It’s his style, just like his solo stage win in Switzerland; his constant attacking of the winning breakaway at the recent USPRO Championship; his prediction that he would win the 2003 T-Mobile International; and his statement that he was at the 2004 Dodge Tour de Georgia “to win,” even when pitted against Armstrong and CSC’s Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt with a questionable Webcor Builders squad.
Readers have criticized Horner for speaking his mind over the years. Comments like, “Everybody was just racing against me,” made after last year’s Olympic trials, have drawn the ire of more than one VeloNews reader.
As a reporter who writes about Horner, when I read these angry letters I sometimes wonder if we have done a poor job of representing the affable rider from California. If you’ve ever actually spoken with the man, you know that he isn’t a trash talker, or even an exceptionally cocky guy. He’s a talented bike racer who is fully aware of his abilities and how he stacks up against the competition.
True, Horner shoots from the hip, but it’s rare, if ever, that I’ve found myself disagreeing with his perception of what’s happened in a race. He can read a race as well as anyone in the sport, and he’s not afraid of anyone on the bike. He calls it like he sees it. I’m hoping that some extended time on OLN this summer will help the American public get to know one of the most dynamic personalities in American racing.
Going into his first attempt at the Tour, Horner told me: “If I climb where I was in Switzerland, I’m going to have a good Tour de France. If I don’t, then maybe I’ll find myself sitting 15th or 20th on GC, and that’s not as impressive. When you are top 10 on GC at the Tour, that’s pretty much your spot. But in the top 20, there are 10 guys who are just helping their GC guys, so realistically you might have been 30th if Lance’s four mountain climbers and Ullrich’s teammates were going for GC themselves. I think anyone in the top 10 has earned their spot, so I’d like to go for a top-10 finish, and if that’s not happening then I’ll probably tank one of the stages on purpose to lower my position on GC and then go for a stage win.”
I’m also glad Horner is headed to the Tour because that’s one more American I’ll know when I’m there. That’s right, for the first time in my three-year tenure at VeloNews, I’m headed to the big show. The only other time I’ve been to the Tour was in 2000, for Armstrong’s second victory. That time I was traveling in a rental car with my girlfriend of the time, a video camera in hand, hoping to get glimpses of the race from a spectator’s viewpoint. Five years later, I’ll be returning with a press credential around my neck, notebook in hand, trying to get a glimpse of the race from a reporter’s viewpoint. Pretty cool stuff.
Bob in the buff and other sightings
With the Tour comes the cycling industry’s annual marketing push, and Kinetics Bike Trainers has a real eye-grabber going on. Its “Bob in the Buff” ads, which will run on OLN during the Tour, feature commentator Bob Roll . . . in the nude. That’s right, nude.
“We are parodying the famous Lance Armstrong photo by Annie Leibowitz where he is shown riding his bike in the nude,” explained Lee Ann Gustafson, marketing director for Kinetic Bike Trainers. “Bob Roll makes most anything funny, but these commercials are going to be the talk of the Tour.”
The premise is that Kinetics is telling the “naked truth about bike trainers.” More information can be found at www.bobinthebuff.com.
If you’re more interested in clothed cyclists, you’ll want to watch for a pair of North American racers being featured on network news.
Jelly Belly-PoolGel team captain/media contact Kirk Albers reports that rider Dave McCook was interviewed by ABC World News on the launch of Jelly Belly’s new Sports Beans. The interview will air, space permitting, Friday night on ABC.
Also, Tyler Farrar (Health Net-Maxxis) will appear on the national broadcast of the CBS Evening News on Saturday. Farrar was interviewed by a CBS crew last weekend during the Park City Cycling Festival for a segment focusing on rising American cycling stars in the rapidly approaching post-Lance Armstrong era.
“The interview itself lasted approximately five minutes,” explained Health Net-Maxxis communications director Jeff Sobul. “No word on how much of that will actually be included in the segment.”
In Park City, Farrar finished fourth in the U23 national criterium championship, second in the U23 national road race championship and fourth in the U23 individual time trial national championship. In 2004, he won both the U23 national criterium and individual time trial.
Lastly, I want to mention the showing of the German film “Hell on Wheels” at our local Boulder Theater tonight on the eve of the Tour prologue.
“Freed from the restraints from strict television reportage,” reads the film’s promotional literature, “German film-maker and Academy Award-winner Pepe Danquart has produced a beautiful film about bicycle racing, capturing the color, movement, atmosphere, and drama in a way that places it among those special report documentary films that transcend the boundaries of interest only to the committed fan.”
As far as I know this is one of the first North American screenings of the documentary of the 2003 Tour de France — you know, the one where Ullrich showed up ready to race. Tickets are $8, and the movie is for all ages. Look for a review in an upcoming issue of VeloNews.