By John Wilcockson
With the centennial Tour nearing the end of its opening week, we have amuch better idea of how the race could play out in the big climbing stagesahead.In the driver’s seat, of course, is Lance Armstrong after he led hisU.S. Postal-Berry Floor troops to a stunning victory in Wednesday’s teamtime trial. It was a win that knocked the stuffing out of several of hisopponents, while many others took heart from their own teams’ performanceas they look ahead to the Alps.Though his Colombian teammate Victor Hugo Peña is in the yellowjersey (by one tick of the clock), Armstrong is leader of the virtual GCthat we’ve worked out by discarding from the top placings those riderswho are team workers, non-climbers, or men with limited ambitions. Hereis the virtual top 20:1. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal-Berry Floor
2. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, at 0:26
3. Joseba Beloki (Sp), ONCE-Eroski, at 0:32
4. Jan Ullrich (G), Bianchi, at 0:38
5. Michael Rogers (Aus), Quick Step-Davitamon, at 1:29
6. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), ibanesto.com, s.t.
7. Santiago Botero (Col), Telekom, at 1:32
8. Tyler Hamilton (USA), CSC, at 1:44
9. Alex Vinokourov (Kaz), Telekom, at 1:48
10. David Millar (GB), Cofidis, at 1:59
11. Stefano Garzelli (I), Vini Caldirola, at 2:02
12. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, at 2:09
13. Ivan Basso (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 2:17
14. Laurent Dufaux (Swi), Alessio, at 2:20
15. David Moncoutié (F), Cofidis, at 2:36
16. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saeco, at 3:09
17. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, at 3:17
18. Brad McGee (Aus), fdjeux.com, at 3:18
19. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel, at 3:34
20. Jesús Manzano (Sp), Kelme-Costa Blanca, at 4:02Armstrong’s first lieutenant Roberto Heras, 26 seconds back, can’t beconsidered an opponent, but he is the man that Postal would turn to shouldthe Texan have a bad day or a bad crash. However, there are still eightof the Postal team’s danger men within two minutes of Armstrong, whilethe worst placed of the Tour’s pre-race favorites are Gilberto Simoni (3:09back) and Iban Mayo (3:34).Mayo and Simoni have a right to lowered morale, but that can’t be saidfor last year’s Tour runner-up Joseba Beloki. Beloki should be upbeatafter the virtual general classification shows him to be in third place,only a half-minute behind Armstrong. But that’s not the case. He told areporter after his ONCE-Eroski team conceded 30 seconds to Postal on Wednesday,“On starting this Tour de France, Lance was the only favorite. It’s obviousafter today he is very strong and he will probably win again unless hehas some sort of problem.”It was the first time in three Tours that ONCE had lost to Postal ina team time trial, but 30 seconds was far from a disaster, and Beloki’scomments show that his morale is extremely fragile. It’s not the attitudeof a potential Tour winner to throw in the towel before the first weekis even over.In contrast to Beloki’s resigned attitude, Jan Ullrich of Bianchi, MichaelRogers of Quick Step, Francisco Mancebo of ibanesto.com and Santiago Boterowere encouraged by their teams’ performances. All four of these ridersshould head into the Alps within one-and-a-half minutes of Armstrong —as opposed to a handicap of perhaps four minutes in a year when the firstlong individual time trial is held before the mountains.Ullrich is looking superb — confident, smiling and apparently readyto battle with Armstrong in the Alps. But will he be able to match thebest climbers? Because of his knee surgeries, amphetamine suspension andyear of low motivation, the 29-year-old German will be tackling the highmountains of the Tour for the first time in two years.For Rogers — the winner of three major stage races in May and June —this will be his first experience of racing in the Alps. At just 23 yearsold, the tall Aussie is here to learn rather than challenge. As for Mancebofinished seventh overall last year and is on course to perhaps finish fifththis time, while Botero is the big unknown. Can the Colombian finally puttogether a Tour without one bad day? If so, he could finish on the podium.Not far behind these would-be challengers for the yellow jersey is asecond tier of riders, headed by Tyler Hamilton of CSC, David Millar ofCofidis, Stefano Garzelli of Vini Caldirola and Davide Rebellin of Gerolsteiner.Hamilton was, remarkably, the strongest rider in his CSC squad at the teamtrial, despite his broken collarbone, and he’s determined to ride hardin the Alps (if the present pain doesn’t worsen).Millar said he was surprised how good he felt in the team time trial,and the tall Brit is determined to make a GC challenge in the coming days.“I’m looking forward to the stages in the Alps” he said after Thursday’sstage. “I’m excited.”As for the Italians Garzelli and Rebellin, they could both be spoilersif the race opens up in the mountains. Garzelli appears to be regainingthe condition he had at the Giro, while Rebellin, who missed the Giro because of an injury, is determined to at least win a stage of the Tour.Surprisingly, Simoni is the worst placed of the Italian standouts. Hewas shattered by his Saeco team’s three-minute loss in the 69-kilometerteam time trial, which equated to conceding more than five seconds everykilometer. The Giro winner hadn’t expected to lose more than a minute andwas planning to take the yellow jersey at L’Alpe d’Huez on Sunday. Thatplan is now on hold.Simoni himself looked good in the team time trial, making strong pullson the course’s frequent short climbs, but he was disappointed in mostof his teammates’ performances. It didn’t help that Saeco’s co-team leaderDanilo Di Luca — who was hoping to win some stages in his debut Tour (andstill might) — has been suffering from a urinary infection. Weakened bythe illness, Di Luca finished behind the peloton on Monday’s stage 2 toSedan, and was twice dropped in the early part of Tuesday’s stage 3 toSt. Dizier. As a result, the feisty rider from southern Italy wasn’t ableto contribute much to the team’s efforts on Wednesday.Simoni could still remain a threat to Armstrong, albeit a lesser one,should his climbing prowess match that he displayed in winning the Girolast month. As for Mayo, the Euskaltel team rider who finished second toArmstrong at June’s Dauphiné Libéré, he will likelyrevert to his original Tour goal of trying to win a stage, rather thanseek a high place on general classification.Yes, Armstrong is in the driver’s seat of the Tour “bus,” but he stillhas a lot of antsy men in the passenger seats.
VeloNews.com welcomes reader comments on this and other topics.Please send your e-mail to WebLetters@7Dogs.com.Letters may be published and, if so, may be edited for length and clarity.Please include your FULL NAME and HOME TOWN.