By Andrew Hood
In what marks an end of era in a year that’s seen more than its fair share of big names leaving cycling, German sprinter star Erik Zabel won’t be part of T-Mobile’s Tour de France plans.
The 34-year-old Berliner has ridden in 11 Tours, winning 12 stages and six green jerseys, but the decisive to leave the German ace off its nine-man Tour roster reveals T-Mobile’s real ambition – to try to beat Lance Armstrong in what will be the six-time champion’s last race.
“With three riders in the team who already stood on the podium in Paris, we are clearly aiming for yellow,” said future team manager Olaf Ludwig referring to stars Andreas Klöden, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov. “It’s as tough a decision for us as it is for Erik.”
Zabel’s name wasn’t included in the team’s rather long “short list” of 13 riders vying for nine spots in the Tour. The nine-man Tour team will be officially presented June 22 in Bonn.
The decision doesn’t mark the end of Zabel’s career. In fact, the team has already offered Germany’s most famous sprinter a contract extension and both parties are expected to reach an agreement before the HEW Cyclassics in late July.
Zabel, who will race the Vuelta a España later this season, couldn’t hide his disappointment with the decision.
“Of course, I’m disappointed, but I’m pro enough to accept the decision of the team management,” Zabel said. “I was aware of this being an option. Each year, it had been somebody’s turn. This time it’s mine.”
Ever since last fall, there’s been gossip that the aging Zabel might not find a spot on the T-Mobile team. Zabel hasn’t won a Tour stage since 2002 and he’s only won one race so far this season.
“We have not taken this decision lightly,” said T-Mobile sport director Mario Kummer. “We have a clear concept and wouldn’t let the discussions irritate us, which started at the end of last year. You don’t leave a world-class sprinter like Erik Zabel at home for no good reason.”
T-Mobile short-list for Tour de France (July 2-24)
Rolf Aldag (36, German)
Giuseppe Guerini (35, Italy)
Sergey Ivanov (30, Russia)
Matthias Kessler (26, German)
Andreas Klöden (29, German)
Paco Lara (28, Spain)
Daniele Nardello (32, Italy)
Bram Schmitz (28, Netherlands)
Stefan Schreck (26, German)
Oscar Sevilla (28, Spain)
Tobias Steinhauser (33, German)
Jan Ullrich (31, German)
Alexander Vinokourov (31, Kazakhstan)
Freire also to miss Tour
Three-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) will also be giving the Tour de France a miss. For the second year in a row, saddle sore will keep the 29-year-old Spanish sprinter at home.
“The pain doesn’t stop and Oscar doesn’t see a solution,” said Rabobank sport director Erik Breukink. “He’ll return to Holland for some new tests.
The news doesn’t come as a big shock for the injury-plagued rider, as Freire’s top goal this year will be defending his rainbow jersey on home roads for the world championships in Madrid in September.
Health problems derailed his strong star to the season which included victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and Fleche Brabanconne, but doctors were hopeful in May after giving the Spanish star a clean bill of health.
He returned to racing at the Tour de Suisse, but pulled out after it became too painful to carry on.
Ullrich ‘believes’ in Tour hopes
A few days in the yellow jersey at the Tour de Suisse have done a lot to boost Jan Ullrich’s confidence ahead of July’s Tour de France.
The 31-year-old said he’s getting stronger by the day as he prepares for one last crack at six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong.
“You have to be in good condition and I have been working hard to get in form. I believe in myself,” Ullrich said.
Ullrich quickly added that he’s also impressed with teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, who missed last year’s Tour with a shoulder injury but looks to back in attacking form. At the recent Dauphiné Libéré, Vinokourov won atop Mont Ventoux, a performance that mightily impressed Ullrich.
“We’re riding for the best man on the team and if it’s him, then I’d have no hesitation in helping him,” said Ullrich, who added he’s not obsessed about Armstrong. “Winning the Tour is more important than beating Armstrong.” Eddy ‘believes’ in LA
Cycling legend Eddy Merckx says only an accident will keep Lance Armstrong from winning a seventh Tour crown.
“I don’t see anyone beating him. Except for an accident, I sure he will win again,” Merckx told the Belgian press ahead of his 60th birthday Friday. “I rode with him recently and he’s very motivated by the idea of winning a seventh Tour.”
Merckx said it was cancer that transformed Armstrong into the best Tour rider of his generation. Without it, Merckx said Armstrong might not have ever won a Tour, let alone a record six.
“With his sickness, he lost weight which helped in the mountains. Since then, he’s lived 200 percent for cycling, but he wasn’t like that before his illness,” he said. “I remember before the world’s in Oslo that he won, I had seen him with his mother drinking a beer. Before, he was an athlete who lived like an American. After that, he became extremely professional.”
Liberty fires team doctor
A recent spate of problems with riders’ hematocrit levels has prompted Liberty Seguros to fire team doctor, Alberto Garai.
Nuno Rubeiro and Isidro Nozal both tested above the allowed 50 percent hematocrit “speed limit” before the Giro d’Italia and Dauphiné Libéré, respectively.
Portuguese rider Rubeiro was immediately fired from the team following his high test ahead of the Giro, through later anti-doping tests revealed no banned substances. Rubeiro has since signed by a Portuguese team for the remainder of the season.
Nozal, meanwhile, voluntarily left the team and is waiting for a series of anti-doping tests to determine the Spanish rider’s future. Liberty Seguros is leaving the door open for Nozal’s return, a key teammate for the Tour de France.
Illes Balears dumps cycling for basketball
The regional government of the Balearic Islands, which sponsors Alejandro Valverde’s Illes Balears team, announced it will end its sponsorship of the ProTour cycling team to underwrite a Spanish league basketball team.
“The plan isn’t to break the contract with the cycling team, but rather to stop being the title sponsor,” said Jaume Matas, president of the Balearic government. “The financial resources aren’t limitless and this decision was taken as a duty to the team and the people of Menorca.”
The government agreed to spend 4.5 million euros to underwrite the basketball team and make improvements to the basketball stadium as the team is set to move into Spain’s equivalent of the NBA.
Illes Balears has a three-year contract with the cycling team, which is set to expire at the end of the 2006 season. The government said it will live up to its commitment to the team.
The news, however, came as a surprise to the team’s staff.
“This is the first news I’ve heard of this,” sport director Eusebio Unzue told the Spanish wires. “We have a sponsorship for three years and no one has told us they’re going to break it.”