By Andrew Hood
Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx has joined a growing chorus of experts tipping Jan Ullrich as the favorite for this year’s Tour de France. Merckx said Sunday that Ullrich would be the man to beat come July.
“This year belongs to Ullrich,” Merckx told Agence France Presse. “He’s decided to compete in the Giro d’Italia before the Tour, which will allow him to arrive in excellent condition. Doing both the Tour and the Giro is an excellent idea. He’ll arrive in July in form with the necessary stamina for three weeks of racing.”
The five-time Tour champion joins Lance Armstrong in predicting that Ullrich looks to be the favorite going into this year’s Tour.
“In the past, Ullrich was mistake in concentrating solely on the Tour,” Merckx continued. “He needs to ride more to build up his fitness for July.”
T-Mobile readies for post-Zabel era
T-Mobile gears up Tuesday for its season debut without the services of star sprinter Erik Zabel, who was allowed to leave the team after 13 years and nearly 200 victories on Germany’s top team.
Tuesday’s GP La Marseillaise marks the season debut for T-Mobile in the post-Zabel era. Without its German ace, the team will be leaning on veteran Olaf Pollack to bump shoulders in the season opener that typically comes down to a sprint finish.
The team is also hoping Eric Baumann, André Korff and team newcomer André Greipe can be there in the mix.
“There is never too much time separating the leaders and the pack. With four strong sprinters in Pollack, Baumann, Korff and Greipel, we are well equipped to take advantage,” said sport director Frans van Looy on the team’s web page.
The team will be wary of breakaways as well. Last year, Team CSC’s Nicki Sörensen held off a 20-man chase group to notch the victory. The team will then race the five-day Etoile de Bessèges that starts Wednesday.
“The attacks will start here as soon as the flag drops,” van Looy predicted of Bessèges. “Robbie McEwen, Fabio Baldato and Jo Planckaert have been overall winners here in the past.”
T-Mobile roster for GP Marseillaise und Etoile de Bessèges: Eric Baumann (25), Marcus Burghardt (22), Bas Giling (23/Netherlands), André Greipel (23), André Korff (32), Olaf Pollack (32), Jörg Ludewig (30) and Frantisek Rabon (22/Czech). Sport director: Frans van Looy
Hushovd to lead Crédit Agricole
With the departure of Tour de France challenger Christophe Moreau, French team Crédit Agricole will be backing Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd for the 2006 racing season.
Team manager Roger Legeay said the team will work to maintain its ranking as the top French team in the ProTour standings and push Hushovd, 28, to more sprint victories. Last year, the team scored 22 wins and the Tour’s green jersey with Hushovd.
“With six victories and the green jersey last year, Thor is the logical leader of the team,” Legeay told L’Equipe. “We are going to build the team around him.”
Without Moreau’s steady presence, the team will turn to Italian Pietro Caucchioli in the grand tours. Last year, Caucchioli was eighth in the Giro d’Italia and figured in the hunt for mountain stage wins in the Tour.
The team will also count on Anthony Charteau, Christophe Edaleine, Jimmy Engoulvent, Dmitry Fofonov and Australian Mark Renshaw to step up in other races.
Liquigas dispersing in early season
Like most ProTour teams, Liquigas is splitting into three groups as the team prepares for its major goals of the 2006 season.
After debuting on the Australian roads of the Tour Down Under, Danilo Di Luca, Stefano Garzelli, Patrick Calcagni, Matej Mugerli, Alessandro Spezialetti and Stefano Zanini left Sunday to train at altitude in Mexico.
Last year, Di Luca and a handful of teammates ventured to Toluca, Mexico, to train for nearly a month at altitude, which helped push Di Luca to his best season ever, culminating in his victory in the ProTour individual standings.
Another group of riders, meanwhile, will be heading to Spain to race in the Mallorca Challenge, Feb. 5-9. Heading there will be 2004 Paris-Roubaix champ Magnus Bäckstedt, Michael Albasini, Kjell Carlström, Dario Cioni, Nicola Loda, Vladimir Miholjevich, Marco Milesi, Vincenzo Nibali, Luca Paolini, Franco Pellizotti and Manuel Quinziato.
The remainder of the team will be attending a training camp in Tuscany.