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By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor
The surroundings were familiar to Bobby Julich as he entered the Pyrénées Friday during the 12th stage of the 2004 Tour de France: the chaotic sea of orange shirts, the deafening tunnel of Basque fans cheering, and the high peaks above. The first major mountain test of the 2004 Tour de France was a one-two Pyrénées punch of Category 1 climbs — the Col d’Aspin and the mountaintop finish at La Mongie.
The last time Julich was here in 2002, the scene looked about the same. But for the 32-year-old American, now riding for the CSC team in support of Italian star Ivan Basso, everything was different.
“I remember doing this climb three years ago, and I think I lost seven minutes,” said Julich. “And I was going absolute maximum. I was just stuck those last two kilometers.”
Not this time, though.
Am I just feeling better?
Julich finished 18th in Friday’s 197km stage between Castelsarrasin and La Mongie. And more importantly, he was part of a resoundingly successful day for the CSC team. With Julich’s support on the day’s two big climbs, Basso beat Lance Armstrong at the line to take the stage win and move into sixth place overall, less than a minute behind Armstrong.
As for Julich, he moved into 17th overall and gave CSC four riders in the top 20 (Jacob Piil was eighth overall).
“This time I was just going over those last two kilometers on [Giuseppe] Guerini and Ullrich’s wheels just going, ‘This isn’t so steep,’” Julich said. “What happened? Did the mountain kind of shrink a little bit, or am I just feeling better?”
Julich even thought he could work his way into a higher position on the final 12km climb to La Mongie, but team concerns come first for him this year. Any ideas of expending unnecessary energy were quashed by the boss.
“Once I settled into a rhythm there with Galdeano and Ullrich, we started doing a tempo that was actually very comfortable for me so I didn’t really have to suffer that much,” Julich said. “I saw that there was a group of like five or six guys like 30 seconds ahead of us and I wanted to jump across.
“Right as I was about to do that [CSC director] Bjarne [Riis] came by in the car and yelled, ‘Do not pull! Stay on the wheels!’ Save a little bit for tomorrow, I guess.
It was an eventful day for Julich and the rest of the field as the race finally heated up after several days of conservative tactics in the Massif Central. Friday’s stage began in the midday heat of Castelsarrasin and rolled along mostly flat roads for nearly 160km. Once the pretty villages and sunflower fields were behind them, the riders finally got their first glimpse of the Pyrénées looking dark, ominous and socked in under rain clouds.
“That was cool,” Julich said. “I actually got that feeling like that stage in 1998 over the Galibier. Back then, when I saw those rain clouds, I was not scared of them, and it was kind of the same thing today.”
The memory says a lot about how things have changed for Julich, who harbors fond memories of 1998, when he finished third, sharing the Tour podium with Ullrich and that year’s winner, Marco Pantani. With six frustrating years now behind him, the American feels he has his best form — and the best team — since ’98.
“We’ve got a great team, we proved that today,” Julich said. “Everyone used to say Ivan Basso never wins, but I think he proved them wrong today.”
And after suffering in near anonymity here two years ago — and so many other times since 1998 — Julich may have proven some people wrong, too.