By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
Jan Ullrich has all but given up on his challenge to Lance Armstrong on this year’s Tour de France and admitted he is now fighting Michael Rasmussen for a place on the podium.
Germany’s 1997 winner and five-time runner-up is nearly six minutes behind his Texan rival in the general classification ahead of next Sunday’s race finale on the Champs Élysées – in Tour terms a mammoth deficit which is all but insurmountable.
Ullrich, who has finished second to Armstrong three times during the American’s six-year reign, admits he is now fighting to make sure he doesn’t finish off the podium for only the second time in seven participations.
Italian Ivan Basso sits in second place 2min 46sec behind Armstrong. Ullrich has little chance of catching the CSC team leader, who is likely to do well in next Saturday’s penultimate day time trial held over 55.5km.
It means 31-year-old Ullrich will now do battle to make sure he finishes ahead of Danish climber Rasmussen, the Rabobank rider who is in third position at 3:09, nearly three minutes ahead of him.
“There are six stages left in the race and I’ll be watching out for any opportunities where I can steal a few seconds here and there,” Ullrich said in a press conference in Pau Monday on the race’s second rest day.
“My aim now has to be the podium. I can’t expect to do any better, but even then it won’t be easy overtaking Michael Rasmussen. He’s been the revelation of the Tour so far.”
Rasmussen, who is wearing the race’s polka dot jersey for the race’s best climber, has more or less secured the jersey ahead of Tuesday’s 16th stage, which is the last of three days in the Pyrenees.
Ullrich may decide it will be his last chance to attack – but whom he attacks, and when he does it will be interesting to see.
If he does, Armstrong could decide to let the German go – although he won’t get far if Armstrong, and especially Basso or Rasmussen, smell danger.
Ullrich’s finish this year is likely to be third place because Rasmussen will, in theory, struggle over the especially difficult time trial course on Saturday.
And he has a philosophical view over his performance this year, which began it in the worse possible way when he lost over a minute to Armstrong in the opening stage time trial over 19km – a day after he had crashed into his team car while out on a training ride.
Ullrich’s attempt to benefit from his apparently good form days later was then scuppered when he crashed at 60kph on a downhill section at the start of stage nine in the hilly Vosges region.
After undergoing scans at a specialist clinic and having some treatment from the Danish acupuncturist he brought on to the race for the first time since 1997, Ullrich emerged with bumps and bruises and admitting he was lucky to still be in the race.
“I’ve had enough crashes to make a Hollywood movie,” he quipped.
A week later, having bowed to the domination of Armstrong in the Alps and Pyrénées, Ullrich admitted he is not too unhappy with his current position.
“It could have been much worse given the two crashes I had,” he said. “But I’ll still be fighting all the way to Paris.”