Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) will use the nine-day Tour of Switzerland starting on Saturday as the main stepping stone to peaking for cycling’s premier contest, the Tour de France next month.
The 1997 Tour de France winner has long been seen as the most realistic challenger to American Lance Armstrong’s grip on cycling’s top prize.
Seventh in last week’s Tour of Germany, Ullrich does not expect to beat teammate Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, the defending champion, who is favored to retain his title, but the mountainous stages will provide ideal training for France.
“This is my last big race before the Tour de France and I know … my form is consistent,” Ullrich, 30, said. “My plan was to be good in the Tour of Germany, better in the Tour of Switzerland and in top form for the Tour de France.”
Riders in the 68th Tour of Switzerland will cover 1445km, starting with a flat 170km test from Sursee to Beromuenster.
Among those likely to challenge Vinokourov are Phonak’s Alex Zülle and Alexandre Moos, while Italy’s Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola) could grab stage wins after returning form the bronchitis that has kept him out of action since the Giro d’Italia. Garzelli’s teammate Pavel Tonkov of Russia also cannot be ruled out.
Among those also seen challenging for stage victories are Gerolsteiner’s Georg Totschnig and Fassa Bortolo riders Dario Cioni and Fabian Cancellara. So, too, are Lotto-Domo’s Robbie McEwen, Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini and Lampre’s Francesco Casagrande.
Armstrong ‘not a 100 percent yet’
Lance Armstrong remained upbeat about his chances of winning an unprecedented sixth Tour de France title despite a poor showing in the fourth stage of the Dauphine Libere on Thursday.
The U.S. Postal Service leader finished in fifth place in a 21.5km time trial up Mont Ventoux, almost two minutes adrift of leader Iban Mayo (Euskaltel).
“I thought I could go faster today,” he told a news conference at his hotel. “But I was forced to realize I’m not a 100 percent yet. I was careful at the start and after five kilometers, when the climb really starts, I found a good rhythm. But when I heard the gap between me and Mayo, I didn’t really slow down but I was less determined.
“I’m not worried because the Tour does not start on Saturday.”
Once the Tour does start, on July 3 in Liège, Armstrong said his main rival will once again be 1997 champion Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
“There are lots of big names, but I still see Ullrich as my main rival,” he said. “He has the most experience, he’s always strong in the third week. I don’t know why, but he’s the rider I fear most.”