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Rest Day Report: T-Mobile’s strong, but who is in charge?

The first rest day of this year’s Tour found the three strong men of T-Mobile in utterly different states of mind. Jan Ullrich, still the designated leader of the team, was happy to have the day off to nurse his wounds from his crash on Sunday. Andreas Klöden was vacillating between relief that his form is improving after a difficult spring and frustration about the narrow loss to Peter Weening at the end of Saturday’s stage. Alexandre Vinokourov on the other hand could just as soon have skipped the day: “I guess a rest day is okay,” he said eagerly, “but I want to go to the Alps. I am

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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews

Ullrich emerges from a Grenoble-area hospital after a rest day check-up

Ullrich emerges from a Grenoble-area hospital after a rest day check-up

Photo: AFP

The first rest day of this year’s Tour found the three strong men of T-Mobile in utterly different states of mind.

Jan Ullrich, still the designated leader of the team, was happy to have the day off to nurse his wounds from his crash on Sunday.

Andreas Klöden was vacillating between relief that his form is improving after a difficult spring and frustration about the narrow loss to Peter Weening at the end of Saturday’s stage.

Alexandre Vinokourov on the other hand could just as soon have skipped the day: “I guess a rest day is okay,” he said eagerly, “but I want to go to the Alps. I am ready to race.” The different mindsets say a lot about the current state of affairs at T-Mobile. Many experts who followed the season leading up to the Tour saw Vinokourov as the number one rider of the squad. And Saturday’s stage, in which T-Mobile cleverly outmaneuvered Discovery and put serious pressure on Lance Armstrong, confirmed that the Kazakh champion will be the one to beat. Without any apparent effort, Vinokourov attacked numerous times, plucking apart the peloton and putting a very concerned expression on Armstrong’s face. To match his actions on the road, Vinokourov stated clearly that he expects to be treated as the team’s leader, should he continue to prove the strongest rider on the team.

“We have a clear agreement – the best man on the team is the captain,” Vinokourov said.

“In 2003, when I was third, I realized that I could stand two steps further up one day. This could be my year,” he said. “I hope that Jan’s and my friendship is strong enough to withstand everything.” Not looking at all like a challenger, Ullrich had done on Saturday what he has always done in the past five years – he sat on Armstrong’s rear wheel, waiting to see what happens.

Armstrong himself repeated after that day, what he had said from the beginning of the Tour.

“To me Vinokourov looks like the captain at T-Mobile,” the American said after a stage in which he was forced to fend off attacks from Vinokourov and last year’s Tour runner-up Klöden.

CSC director Bjarne Riis agreed. In an interview with Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine, Riis said there was no question who should be in charge as the Tour moves to the Alps.

“Alexandre Vinokourov is stronger than Jan,” Riis said. “He can be very dangerous in the mountains.”

It seems only the T-Mobile management doesn’t seem to be able to see the obvious.

“We are happy to have three people among the top ten and Saturday was very good for our morale,” director Olaf Ludwig said. “But we have no reason to debate the matter of a new captain.” It was exactly like last year, when it was obvious for anyone who knew even a little bit about cycling, saw that Andreas Klöden was in a stronger position to act as T-Mobile’s team leader. Yet T-Mobile stubbornly posits Ullrich as their number one man.

One thing that won’t happen, most observers agree, is that there will be a three-way leadership battle with Vinokourov, Ullrich and a newly resurgent Klöden.

Although Klöden rode a strong race on Saturday, he conceded that he has already lost too much time in this Tour and is still far from his best after a problem-ridden spring. “I know my preparation was not ideal”, Klöden says. “I made mistakes.”

Klöden said after last year’s Tour, he came into the 2005 season with a bit too much motivation.

“By April I had 3000 kilometers more than last year,” he noted.

The over-training showed when he started at the Tour de Pays Basque and at the Fleche Wallone, quickly getting dropped in both events.

Both were a serious blow to his motivation.

“Andreas’ problem is that he gives up very easily, if things don’t quite go his way,” said T-Mobile assistant team director Frans van Loy. Klöden stopped racing and training seriously. By the time the Tour of Bavaria in early June came around, he had recuperated and won a stage. He was back on track but the damage to his Tour preparation had been done. Now at the Tour, he says, “I am feeling better from day to day.”

His role in the team however is clear to him: “I am a helper of Jan Ullrich.” He is, however, prepared to be a helper of Alexander Vinokourov alongside Jan Ullrich.

Although Ullrich’s crash on Sunday did not cause him serious injury, he may feel its consequences for the days to come. Ullrich has severe bruises all over his back and on the side of his head.

“This was a very serious crash,” team doctor Lothar Heinrich said. “He is definetly going to feel this.”

If Ullrich’s performance at the prologue after his crash is any indication, it will impede his performance. Ullrich himself said after a training ride on Monday, that it is painful for him to breathe deeply but that he “remains optimistic.” But that is not the only reason T-Mobile may want to rethink their team hierarchy. Criticism of the way Ullrich prepares and races has been once again mounting in the past days and not all of the critics can be wrong. After Eddy Merckx and former German world champion Rudi Altig, Bjarne Riis spoke up in this past Sunday’s interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine. “All Ullrich does,” Riis said, “is just ride along. He focuses only on himself and doesn’t look around at what is happening. He doesn’t look at Armstrong to size him up. He doesn’t pay attention to detail. He thinks all he has to do is ride at his best. But that’s not enough. He completely lacks the desire and drive to attack.” On top of that, Riis suggested that Ullrich no longer has the physical ability to win.

“In 1997 when he won, he took off on the climbs like Armstrong did in later Tours,” Riis argued. “He can’t do that anymore. He has become sluggish through the many, many miles over the years. But if you really want to win, you have to want to work on your weaknesses too. Like Basso has with his time trialing. Jan can always ride along with the best. But he can’t make a difference in the mountains anymore.” If Saturday was any indication, Vinokourov has what Ullrich lacks – the desire and ability to attack. The division of labor – Ullrich covering Armstrong, Vinokourov attacking, Klöden as a wild-card, seems to be the ideal strategy of the team, given where each of the riders are at this point. If Saturday was any indication, it certainly can cause Discovery some distress.

From an observer’s perspective, one can only hope that it continues over the next few days. Saturday’s stage was, after all, among the most exciting and interesting stages of the past six Tours.