By Andrew Hood
This is the last chance for Jan Ullrich and his lonely quest to beat Lance Armstrong.
With just a few days to go before the pair’s final Tour de France showdown, Ullrich’s optimism proves yet again that hope springs eternal.
“I’d love to beat him,” Ullrich, 31, told Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “He’s dominated the race for the last six years and broken the records of the century. That’s my motivation — this is the last chance.”
The red-headed German has consistently been Armstrong’s top rival in the Texan’s six-year Tour reign. Ullrich nearly derailed Armstrong in the exciting 2003 Tour, but stumbled last year and finished fourth, his worst Tour result of his prodigious career.
Ullrich said he’s more motivated than ever, knowing this is his last opportunity to steal Armstrong’s Tour crown in what will be the Texan’s final race as a professional.
“Lance has dominated the Tour for the last six years and whoever beats him is going to be the greatest,” Ullrich continued. “A true sportsman always wants to beat the best. This year’s duel will be the most exciting because this is his last Tour.”
It’s hard to remember sometimes that it was Ullrich – not Armstrong – that many predicted would shatter the hallowed five-win Tour victory record. After finishing second in his Tour debut in 1996, Ullrich delivered on his promise by winning at the ripe age of 23 the following year.
But the freckled-faced rider from Rostok has just as often been his own worse enemy, struggling with a series of self-inflicted bouts with weight and health problems that have stymied his best chances against Armstrong.
“If I look at the past, I think I could have often had a better result than I ended up having. I can’t afford to squander any more chances,” Ullrich said. “I don’t want to look back in 10 years and see that I beat myself in the Tour de France in my best years because I did something wrong.”
Ullrich went so far as to admit he blundered following his early Tour success, something he writes off as youthful mistakes that he’s learned from. Now 31, Ullrich said he’s more mature and more professional.
“I didn’t know any better, I didn’t have the experience,” he continued. “I’ve grown up. Only now do I see the mistakes that I made earlier. I was young and foolish — just not a 100-percent professional as now.”
No Gibo’ for Tour
In somewhat of a surprise announcement, Lampre-Caffita revealed its Tour nine with one name conspicuously missing: Gilberto Simoni.
Simoni, 33, finished second in the Giro d’Italia and began hinting he would race the Tour. Speculation rose another notch when it was revealed Italian prodigy Damiano Cunego wouldn’t be starting after being diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus.
Simoni, however, said it was never in his plans to race the Tour and instead will take on the Vuelta a España later this season. The two-time Giro champion is also in the final year of his contract and has been linked with a move to Domina Vacanze, leaving Cunego and the pair’s sometimes acrimonious partnership behind.
Without Simoni or Cunego, the team won’t have a clear GC contender and instead will pin its hopes on winning a stage with the likes of Gianluca Bortolami or Salvatore Commesso.
Lampre-Caffita for Tour
Gianluca BortolamiSalvatore Commesso
Rogers, Boonen lead Quick Step
Michael Rogers and Tom Boonen will lead a strong Quick Step team for the Tour, with Boonen hunting stage-wins and the green point’s jersey and Rogers hoping to deliver on his promise as a future Tour winner with a strong ride.
Boonen took a break from racing after barn-storming through the spring classics, winning Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. A winner of two stages last year, Boonen will be taking the battle for the green jersey against the likes of Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady.
Rogers, meanwhile, will carry his strong form from the Tour de Suisse, where he held the race lead until succumbing to a super-motivated Aitor Gonzalez in the final day. The reigning world time trial champion is hoping to stay with the best in the mountains and hope for a top 10 finish.
With Paolo Bettini skipping the Tour to hope to recover from nagging health problems, the remainder of the team will be at the beck and call of the two captains. Also missing was last year’s stage-winner José Miguel Mercado.
Quick Step-Innergetic for Tour
Fassa minus Petacchi
With sprint-king Alessandro Petacchi skipping the Tour de France to rev up for a run at the world title later this season, Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha and Dario Frigo will lead Fassa Bortolo into July.
Flecha, a winner of a Tour stage in 2003, has had a strong season and promises to be on the attack. Fabian Cancellara, last year’s prologue winner, also hopes to continue his positive Tour progression.
Fassa Bortolo for Tour
Juan Antonio Flecha
Honchar leads Domina Vacanze
Veteran Ukraine rider Serghiy Honchar will lead Domina Vacanze for the Tour de France. The 35-year-old also raced the Giro d’Italia, but hopes to be a factor for the Italian team’s GC hopes.
Domina Vacanze for Tour
French bank Crédit Agricole has announced it will extend its sponsorship for two more years, assuring that Roger Legeay’s team will be in the elite ranks through 2008. Crédit Agricole took over the team’s sponsorship from GAN in 1998. Legeay, meanwhile, has extended contracts with Christophe Le Mevel and Italian Francesco Bellotti and signed young French rider Jonathan Hivert to a two-year deal.
German rider fails test
German rider Stefan Schumacher failed a doping test May 14 during the Rheinland-Pfalz-Rundfahrt for the banned stimulant Cathine. The 23-year-old German was actually leading the UCI European continental rankings and has been suspended from his Shimano-Memory Corp. team while waiting for the B-sample analysis.