The Tour de France starts Tuesday. Oh, I know you think it started a week ago today, with Stage 1. Although officially it started a week ago yesterday, with the Prologue, since the time and points from Stage 0 do count. (Already your head hurts. Don’t worry about it. There is plenty here to confuse, but much much more to entertain and even amaze.) The real race, however, between the riders who have a legitimate chance to win the whole croissant begins Tuesday, in the mountains.
I mention this to calm those among you who are worried that the current race leader, Stuart O’Grady, an Australian sprinter of some repute, took about 30 minutes out of the main general classification riders today. As race commentary pointed out, the last time O’Grady rode into the mountains, he lost 20 minutes to Lance Armstrong on the first climb.
It is necessary that I mention this because I’ve noticed that U.S. headline writers have no idea what is going on and have been writing panicky headlines for the past week. And even the Associated Press beat writer went a bit gloom and doom when St. Lance’s U.S. Postal team finished a respectable, but disappointing fourth in Thursday’s team time trial after a nasty, but it could have been so much worse, fall.
So fear not, jingoistic fans who wouldn’t know a Vuelta from Velveeta, Lance is not in trouble from the men who broke away early today. No, his threat comes from much closer to home. Like maybe fellow American Bobby Julich, O’Grady’s Credit Agricole teammate.
Julich is CA’s GC rider. (That’s CA for Credit Agricole, his team’s sponsor, and GC for general classification. As you become more familiar with cycling, you come to realize that if you are limited, as most of us are, to following this event closely on the web, you need to be an expert at acronyms and initialisms. It’s the only way for on-line commentators to key things in fast enough. So put on your thinking caps. Everything moves very quickly in cycling, except when they’re going uphill.)
Most of the teams have at least one guy who is identified as their man to compete in the race for the overall lead, the maillot jeune, the yellow jersey, the general classification. And for Credit Agricole that is Bobby Julich, who has had bad luck, bad health, and a very bad fall in his attempts since finishing a surprising third in 1998. Although his results so far this year haven’t shown him to be in the best place competitively, his work with his teammates have him twelfth, and more importantly, 1 ½ minutes ahead of favorite Armstrong, going into the mountains, which are his strength. So if Bobby and his CA buddies haven’t given too much in week one to keep their team leader, O’Grady, in the yellow jersey, Bobby could be a man to worry about in the Alps.
Of course, everyone is talking most about Jan Ullrich, the 1998 champion, who apparently swore off his off season regimen of donuts and beer and came into the 2001 tour in the best shape of his life. His physical shape may not be his biggest challenge though. The year Ullrich won in 1997, his team’s leader Bjarne Riis, was suddenly old. And his team, Deutsche Telecomm, decided in the middle of a cold, rainy mountain stage to switch horses and support Ullrich for the GC. Since his win, Ullrich has finished second twice, not competing due to injury in 1999. This means that he’s never won when expected to win. And I’ve often wondered if his notorious lack of preparation doesn’t stem from a lack of mental toughness. This is no race for the merely physically gifted. The heart of a champion is no cliché on the ascents to the cols of the Tour de France.
I have an idea of how this middle week in the mountains will go. Lance Armstrong will attack at L’Alpe d’Huez. He won’t waste energy winning the stage, but he’ll put enough time in Ullrich and the others to make them wonder how they’ll make it up. He’ll win the mountain time trial because he is the superior climber and at least an equal time trialer to anyone there. He’ll make darned sure that the yellow jersey does not pass from the worthy, but unequal to the mountains Francois Simon of Bonjour to the shoulders of Cofidis rider Andrei Kivilev. (Remember, when he won his first post-illness tour stage, a time trial, he rubbed it into the face of a Cofidis management that left him for dead. If he can help it, Cofidis will have not one day of glory in this tour.) And Lance (who’s long memory is intact for his friends, as well as his enemies) will win the second stage in the Pyrenees Saturday to honor his friend Fabio Casartelli, who died in a crash on the descent from the Col du Portet d’Aspet in the 1995 tour.
If Ullrich is on form as much as he seems to be, and Telecomm is as much stronger than U.S. Postal as the pundits imagine, it could all come down to the last stage in the Pyrenees and a brutal climb to Luz Ardiden. We can’t hope for the last time trial on the final Friday to be the key. The mountains must demand the truth long before the race of truth on July 27.
All that being said, I’ll still pick Lance Armstrong for a historic third TDF in a row.