Beloki, Botero promise more aggressive racing
By Andrew Hood
Jan Ullrich is looking fit and determined in what’s a comeback Tour de France for the 1997 champion. After a dark 2002, when he suffered two knee surgeries and tested positive for the party drug ecstasy, Ullrich is back with modest aspirations for Saturday’s start of the Tour.
“I’ll do my best in this Tour. It will be even a surprise for me because I don’t know where my form truly is,” Ullrich said in a press conference Friday. “I would be happy with a stage victory. I don’t know what to expect for the overall standings.”
It was nearly a year ago to the day that Ullrich faced the world’s press following the news he failed an out-of-competition test last year for amphetamines, which he said came from ecstasy he took in a wild night out to forget his troubles.
“My future was very unclear at that point, but I never doubted I would return to cycling if my knees permitted it,” said Ullrich, four times Tour runner-up. “I’ve matured a lot since then, and I no longer will make the same silly mistakes.”
The German missed the entire 2002 season, left his longtime team Telekom and joined Team Coast, which crumbled this spring only to be resurrected after Bianchi stepped in as the title sponsor.
Ullrich, whose girlfriend recently gave birth to their first child, said his Bianchi team will be strong enough to help him.
“These were difficult times for the team, but Bianchi came forward and that has helped the team. We were not distracted by it too much, and it’s made us stronger, not weaker,” Ullrich said.
Ullrich said he didn’t have time to preview the Tour stages, a practice in vogue among many of the Tour’s top stars.
“I was racing in Germany and then the Tour de Suisse, and I didn’t have time, but I have raced the Tour six times and I am familiar with the mountains,” he said. “The stage that I am impressed with most is the one to L’Alpe d’Huez. These are historical stages, one I would like to win.”
Defending champion Lance Armstrong continues to compliment Ullrich and calls him his major rival, words that Ullrich said he appreciates.
“I feel honored about the things that Lance says about me,” Ullrich said. “I don’t think I will win this year’s Tour. I still have two or three more years to try to win the Tour before I retire.”
Telekom: Vinokourov and Botero share leadership
Team Telekom enters its first Tour de France since 1995 without the services of its former star Ullrich, who finished second in the 1996 Tour in his debut with the team.
Telekom comes with dual leadership, with Alexandre Vinokourov and Santiago Botero to lead the team in the fight for the overall classification. Despite losing the services of 2002 Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli and Aussie hopeful Cadel Evans, the team enters the Tour with high ambitions.
“My minimum goal is to finish on the top-three podium,” Vinokourov said. “I enter the Tour motivated and strong.”
The Kazakh has been one of the hottest riders of the season, winning Paris-Nice, Amstel Gold and the Tour de Suisse in dramatic fashion. Part of his drive has come from the racing death of Andrei Kivilev, his compatriot who died after crashing in Paris-Nice.
Vinokourov insists he’s strong enough to come out of the Swiss race to take on the Tour.
“The Tour de Suisse didn’t cause me to lose strength, it made me stronger,” he said. “I am physically strong and mentally prepared as well.”
Sharing leadership duties will be Colombian Santiago Botero, who won two stages and finished fourth overall last year. Botero was slowed in much of June with a chest infection, but he says that’s completely cleared up.
“I am in better shape than I was at last year’s world’s,” said Botero, who won the world time trial title. “If I have the power, I will attack Lance. My time trial victory against him last year gives me motivation and revealed that he’s not invincible.”
Telekom will also have Erik Zabel chasing the green points jersey, which he lost last year to Aussie Robbie McEwen.
Armstrong: Short ride in final warm-up
Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates went on a two-and-a-half-hour, 90km ride Friday morning as their final tune-up for Saturday’s start.
“Everything is in order for Saturday,” said team spokesman Jogi Mueller. “The guys went on a light ride, rode all together, came back for lunch and massage, and that was it.”
Armstrong and the team then headed to the team presentation at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on Friday evening.
Armstrong said in a Friday press conference he’s done all he could to be ready to try to win his fifth consecutive Tour. He admits he’s the heavy favorite for victory.
“I wish I could come into these races and people would say, ‘He can’t win.’ That works better for me,” he said. “When everyone says it’s easy and that I’ve won, that’s what worries me. I have to stay realistic. Nothing is given in this sport.”
Nations: Spain leads the tally
Spain leads the Tour de France with 43 riders starting, followed by 39 French riders and 35 for Italy.
It’s the first time Spain has ever had the most riders in the Tour, and the first time Spanish riders have outnumbered French and Italian riders, respectively.
Australia comes with seven riders, an antipodean record while Belgium comes with only eight racers, a record low since World War II. Holland comes with seven riders, also another post-war low, if you disregard 1999, when the Dutch-heavy TVM squad wasn’t invited back to race.
America comes with six riders, led by Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service). George Hincapie and Floyd Landis (USPS), Fred Rodriguez (Caldirola-Sidermec), Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) and Tyler Hamilton (CSC).
With an outside chance of an all-American sweep of the Tour podium, Armstrong said, American cycling is hitting a high point.
“Cycling today is a global sport. You’re not just seeing U.S. riders, but also from Australia and Eastern Europe. It’s true, we have to work harder to find a team and be accepted,” Armstrong said. “You have a time when a country surges and has a good period. I can’t imagine a time when American cycling was as deep.”
The record number of Americans in the Tour was 10 in 1986, followed by nine starters in 2000. Can you name the 10 starters in the 1986 Tour or the nine starters in 2000? See the list below.
Tour riders by nation:
Spain, 43 riders
Australia, Holland, 7
Russia, Switzerland, 5
Austria, Denmark, 4
Czech Republic, Ukraine, 2
South Africa, Croatia, Estonia, Great Britain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Venezuela, 1
The 10 American starters in 1986 were Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Chris Carmichael, Davis Phinney, Doug Shapiro, Bob Roll, Jeff Pierce, Ron Kiefel, Eric Heiden and Alexi Grewal.
Nine Americans started in 2000: Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, Kevin Livingston, Chann McRae, Fred Rodriguez, Bobby Julich and Jonathan Vaughters.
Health tests: Everyone’s good to go
All 198 riders expected to start Saturday’s Tour were declared “fit to race” after blood tests were administered Friday.
Throughout the 2003 Tour, riders will be subjected to a total of 148 tests taken from urine samples with six to eight tests each day of the July 5-27 race, the French Cycling Federation said last week. Last year, 138 tests were administered.
This year, 80 to 90 tests will be carried out specifically to target traces of the banned performance enhancer EPO, the French federation said. EPO, or erythropoietin, enhances stamina by increasing the number of oxygen-carrying red bloods cells.
Also, an observation team from WADA will be on hand for the opening week of the Tour to ensure that proper procedure is followed during the medical tests.
Beloki hopes to be there if Lance falters
Spaniard Joseba Beloki has made it onto the podium on each of his three previous appearances in the Tour de France and is hoping that champion Lance Armstrong falters this time round so that he can seize his chance at last.
“Any rider can be beaten. His reign is bound to stop one day,” the ONCE-Eroski team leader told a news conference in Paris on Friday. “I was the closest to beating him last year so I hope to be able to seize the opportunity the day his reign ends.”
American Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team are aiming for a record-equaling fifth consecutive victory in the Tour, which starts on Saturday.
Beloki, who was third in 2000 and 2001 and second last year, has been criticized for his team’s cautious approach to the race, but said this would change.
“The time has come to make more risks and go for victory,” he said. “I’ve been third, second, I hope this time will be the one.”
But the 29-year-old Basque rider said he would be content just to give it his best shot.
“My main goal is to give it my all and to fight as best as I can. You cannot be disappointed by your place if you did your best,” he said.
Beloki said his preparation for the race had been the same as last year despite the absence of his teammate and closest aide, Igor Gonzalez Galdeano.
“He will be dearly missed by the whole team and especially by me,” he said. “He’s an essential part of the team. I usually train with him for the Tour, so I’ve missed him already.”
Fifth last year, Gonzalez Galdeano was banned from competing in France after failing a dope test for corticoids. The Spaniard was cleared by the International Cycling Union (UCI) but not by French anti-doping authorities, whose rules are tougher.
“The young ones are here to take over from Igor,” said Beloki, singling out Portuguese Jose Azevedo, sixth last year, as his main ally in the mountains.
“He’s the one I hope will stay closer to me. He’s the team’s undisputed number two.”
Beloki did not rule out the possibility of the rival Spanish teams uniting in an attempt to beat Armstrong.
Fassa Bortolo leader Aitor Gonzalez and Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo are both contenders for the Tour.
“A Spanish coalition is a possibility, but Armstrong is strong enough to go after each one of us, and a coalition would not necessarily be against him only,” said Beloki.
He added there were other riders capable of winning the centenary race.
“A lot of riders can do well – Jan Ullrich, Gilberto Simoni, Ivan Basso or Tyler Hamilton. But Armstrong remains the man to beat while you can never rule out for a complete unknown to appear like myself in 2000.”
Tour chief feels race image is restored
Tour de France chief Jean-Marie Leblanc feels the race has recovered from the disastrous impression left by a 1998 doping scandal, but added that organizers could not be complacent about it ever happening again.
“We’re not far from having fought our way back from 1998,” he told the sports daily l’Equipe on Friday.
Leblanc said the Tour nearly collapsed in 1998 when the Festina scandal revealed the widespread use of drugs, especially erythropoietin (EPO), amongst riders.
He added that the Tour, which celebrates its centenary this year and survived two world wars, was still not entirely healed.
“It could still collapse, if 1998 happened all over again,” said Leblanc. “To say there is no such fear would be preposterous. You can never be sure, but we’re no longer in the same situation as in 1997-98.
“Let’s say it’s not bound to happen again, whereas we’ve realized now it was bound to happen at the time.”
Apart from drugs, Leblanc said, his other fear was security on the side of the road, particularly after the death last year of a young boy, who was struck by a car.
“The Tour is meant to be a big party, to bring happiness along the road (and) … (it) is 4,000 people who rush past millions of spectators for 23 days. There are more risks than in a closed stadium.”
Leblanc added he thought that four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong would face his biggest challenge so far with shorter individual time trials and fewer mountain finishes.
“I don’t want to be unpleasant to Lance Armstrong, but it seems to me he will be more challenged than in previous years,” he said. “Even though it could be a wrong impression, he gave little hints that he might not be as strong as he used to.
“I’m really looking forward to see what (Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto) Simoni will do, and Telekom with their many leaders and the return of Jan Ullrich and all the Spaniards.”
UCI recommends helmets in track, TTs
The compulsory wearing of safety helmets in track pursuit and time trial events came a step closer on Friday after the International Cycling Union (UCI) made a formal recommendation for their use.
The wearing of hard-shell helmets in elite men’s events was made mandatory in May following the death of Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev from head injuries in the Paris-Nice race in March.
The UCI decided to recommend the use of helmets for the other two disciplines with the aim of eventually making it compulsory.
“As of January 1, 2004, appropriate measures will be taken to settle the problem of races against-the-clock and on-track pursuit competitions,” the Swiss-based UCI said in a statement.
“As of today, the management committee has addressed a formal recommendation to all riders that they use hard-shell security helmets as well during those events.”
A spokesman for the UCI said that there had been concerns that riders were wearing aerodynamic helmets rather than safety helmets in some events that were not covered by the rules.
“At the moment we cannot oblige a rider to wear a helmet but we have recommended them to do so,” he said.
“We know that the advice will not necessarily be followed but it is important if there is an accident in the next few months that this recommendation has been made.”