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Ullrich eager to tackle ‘real stages’ of Tour

German cycling great Jan Ullrich threw down the gauntlet to five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on Monday, declaring that while the American might hold a 55-second advantage over him after the first week, it was nothing because the real Tour was about to start. The 30-year-old 1997 Tour de France winner took advantage of the rest day to lay down his challenge to end the American's bid for a sixth successive victory in the world's greatest cycling race. "The real Tour de France effectively begins now with its real stages," said the East German-born T-Mobile rider, referring to

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By Agence France Presse

German cycling great Jan Ullrich threw down the gauntlet to five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on Monday, declaring that while the American might hold a 55-second advantage over him after the first week, it was nothing because the real Tour was about to start.

The 30-year-old 1997 Tour de France winner took advantage of the rest day to lay down his challenge to end the American’s bid for a sixth successive victory in the world’s greatest cycling race.

“The real Tour de France effectively begins now with its real stages,” said the East German-born T-Mobile rider, referring to the impending first mountain stages in the Pyrénées on Friday.

“The 55 seconds which I am trailing Lance Armstrong by is not going to irritate me. It would be ridiculous for me to stay in my room and mope and hide my face under a sheet over such a small gap.”

Ullrich, whose cheery demeanor contrasted to the cold efficiency of Armstrong’s press conference in Liége at the start of the Tour, said he would not be ready to admit defeat until the penultimate stage, a 55km time trial around Besancon on July 24.

He added that he was “very excited to see the mountain stages on the horizon.”

“In the Tour de France, it is imperative to take every opportunity that arises no matter the terrain,” Ullrich said. “If luck smiles on me, I will not reject it.”

However, Ullrich rejected the idea that this year’s Tour was merely a duel between himself and Armstrong.

“One thing I am sure of is that there are several candidates to be crowned champion,” he said, singling out four other riders sure to cause problems: American Tyler Hamilton and Spaniard Oscar Sevilla (Phonak); Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi); and Ivan Basso (CSC).

Hamilton and Sevilla “are well protected and have a team which is running well,” Ullrich said. “Iban Mayo will definitely attack because even if the race will be tough for him to win now (he trails Armstrong by nearly six minutes), he can still envisage finishing in the top five and perhaps even the podium. Finally, I also see Ivan Basso surging up to the front.”

Ullrich acknowledged that Armstrong was looking as formidable as ever.

“I have found him strong,” said Ullrich, who has finished runner-up in the Tour five times, three of them behind the Texan. “I have noticed how he is on the bike. It is clear that I will have to be 100 percent focused.”

Ullrich said he didn’t believe that the contenders would show too much in the upcoming two stages in the Massif Central.

“The two stages will be long and hard,” he said. “There will of course be attacks, but I don’t think they will be led by the podium contenders. I think that will belong to the riders who are further down the standings.”

As for his own form, Ullrich said he didn’t feel below par.

“I feel that I am in good form,” he said. “I felt it especially when I went to the front of the peloton to avoid falling. It is nonetheless difficult to say if I am actually either at 60 percent or 90 percent of my capacities.”