By Jean-François Quenet
Irishman Stephen Roche, the 1987 winner, Frenchman Marc Madiot, a modernand shrewd team manager, and cycling sage and former directeur sportifMichel Gros put the American and German champions through a litmus test.
EXPERIENCE: A TIE “THEY BOTH HAVE WHAT IT TAKESTO WIN”
“Armstrong is a true leader. He never panics and knows how to keep a jersey,” Gros says without hesitation. It’s true. While Marco Pantani took the yellow jersey from Ullrich in 1998, Armstrong, once atop the classification, has never yielded since his first win in 1999.
According to Roche, “Armstrong’s experience stems from his excellentpreparation. Every year I’m told Ullrich is better, but I still don’t seehim getting there.”
Madiot’s words are more nuanced: “Armstrong and Ullrich both have theexperience of Tour winners — perhaps Armstrong more because he’s won itmore often and more recently — but they both have what it takes to win.From my point of view, the difference between them lies not in experiencebut in the mental game.”
MOTIVATION: ARMSTRONG “FOR LANCE, THE NEEDTO WIN IS KEY”
Madiot affirms: “Armstrong is more of a killer than Ullrich. He hasa more selfassured personality, seeing things according to his perspectiveand his attitude outside of the confines of the race. Look, for example,at a picture taken at a gathering of the former winners of the Tour duringthe centennial celebration: The manner in which Armstrong stares Ullrichdown; he had already won the fight nine months before his fifth victory.”
And this year? “His motivation will be that of a rider embarking onhis last Tour, because I don’t see him doing another,” suggests Gros.
“I see him stopping after a victory, but not after a second place,”counters Roche. “For Lance, the need to win is key. Ullrich doesn’t have10 more to shoot for, but certainly one or two more than Armstrong.”
PREPARATION: ARMSTRONG “ULLRICH’S APPROACHSEEMS LESS SOPHISTICATED”
“Ullrich hasn’t demonstrated a change in behavior,” points out Roche,who doesn’t give much credit to the German champion’s entourage. “On theother hand, Armstrong has been racing near the top since March, withoutyet having the fitness he’ll have in July. And he is studying the Tourroute very carefully — the time trials, the climbs.”
“I have my doubts about Ullrich, who appeared to be behind in his preparationthis spring with respect to last year,” echoes Gros.
Madiot confirms this point. “Armstrong prepares himself better. Withhim, the Tour de France seems more structured, while natural talent iswhat saves Ullrich, whose approach seems much less sophisticated, seenfrom the outside.”
TEAM: ULLRICH “ON PAPER, T-MOBILE HAS ONE HELLOF A TEAM”
Gros predicts, “If the team wants to take Armstrong’s place, like lastyear, T-Mobile shouldn’t be interested in having so many trump cards.”
Roche agrees. “On paper, T-Mobile hasone hell of a team, while U.S.Postal is aging and therefore not as strong. But a great conductor is ableto get his men to play above their abilities, and if Armstrong is
riding strong, his teammates will rise to his level.”
Madiot asks two questions: “Will the friendship between Ullrich andVinokourov survive the individual ambitions of the two men? T-Mobile hasthe means to create diversions, but will the race allow a lot of movement?I don’t believe that a breakaway giving Vino a five-minute lead will beallowed to happen.”
TACTICS: ARMSTRONG “THE AMERICAN IS A FOX”
“If he hopes to win the Tour, Ullrich will need to risk losing hishabitual second place,” suggests Gros. “He must also let the Spaniards— Mayo, Heras, Beloki, Zubeldia, Sastre — and Hamilton go on the offensive.His chances consist of playing intelligently on the duality he can formwith Vinokourov.”
Roche doesn’t believe this for one simple reason: “The American is afox. Several times he let Ullrich take some time on him. I don’t know whatschool of thought Ullrich represents; he is physically stronger than Armstrong,but tactics are still his weakness. That said, Armstrong has an increasingneed to resort to his tactical sense, because his muscles are a year older.And since several adversaries were knocking on the door in 2003, the Americanneeds to be a savvy tactician in order to hold them off.”
Madiot sees in Armstrong “nerves of steel and very good control of therace.”
But he downplays the supposed tactical superiority of the American.“Now that Ullrich also has a lot of experience in the major stage races,I would put them at 50-50 in this regard.”
TOUR ROUTE 2004: A TIE “KEEP IN MIND THE SIXTHTOUR SYNDROME”
With most of the real challenges concentrated at the end of the Tour,and the unique ascension up L’Alpe d’Huez in an individual time trial,the course set-up is different from past years.
“Whatever the route,” predicts Roche, “it’s hard for me to see Ullrichbreaking Armstrong, even if T-Mobile has the advantage of a number of favoritesand even if a mutiny — like with Induráin in 1996 — is always apossibility. It seems to me that L’Alpe d’Huez favors Lance more than itdoes Jan.”
“I think that everything gets evened out between L’Alpe d’Huez, whichfavorsArmstrong, and the team time trial, which should favor T-Mobile,”suggests Gros. “In the mountains in general, the German team,
due to its diversity, can preoccupy U.S. Postal.”
Madiot sees an advantage for Ullrich. “The first 15 days of rather flatterrain may allow Jan to come into form. After that, it doesn’t matterwhat the rest of the route is like; it’s how recovered a rider is thatcounts.We know that Armstrong is a hair tougher mentally, but he is alsoa year older and will need to overcome the syndrome of the sixth Tour.Whatever the route, the sixth is the most difficult to win; it’s not bychance that no one has succeeded. Everyone thought it would be a formalityfor Induráin in 1996. Taking into account the lineup and qualityof adversaries, Armstrong’s advantage in 2004 appears to me to be smallerthan Induráin’s in 1996.”
“I hope for Ullrich’s sake and that of the race that the German willbe up to the level of the much-heralded duel,” concludes Stephen Roche.
[Translated from French by Mark Deterline.]