With less than a week to go until the start of the 2001 Tour de France the excitement is rapidly rising. Two-time winner Lance Armstrong will be hoping to have a repeat performance this year while the likes of Jan Ullrich, team Telekom, and Joseba Beloki, team ONCE, will be desperately trying to stop him in his tracks.
The flat stages within the first week will certainly be fast and furious with the frantic sprint finishes, but without Mario Cipollini’s ‘Red Train’ to control events in the final kilometres there is more than a glimmer of hope for the lone breakaway successes.
The first serious test for the riders will be the team time trial on stage five. ONCE, showed blistering form in last weeks Tour of Catalunya’s TTT and as last years winners of this event in France, they look a good bet for victory. However the likes of Telekom and US Postal, carry the two race favourites and therefore cannot be counted out so the stage is vital for any rider hoping to do well overall. Last year Alex Zulle lost all hope of winning the Tour before the race had even reached the mountains, due to the fact that he had a team of mountain climbers around him.
The race will really come alight in the mountains on stage 10, Tuesday 17th, 11 and 13. Stage 10 features the famous climb of the L’Alpe D’Huez. It was last seen in the race in 1999 when Giuseppe Guerini, Telekom, collided with a fan yet still won ahead of Virenque and Armstrong. However before reaching the finish the riders also have to take in several other climbs including the colossal Col de la Madeleine, which reaches 2000M. This year both Armstrong and Ullrich are surrounded by great team support from the likes of Roberto Heras (USPS) and Kevin Livingston (Telekom). Therefore the 32km individual time trial the following day could go even further to deciding the overall standings. The time trial is a one long climb up to Chamrousse and the riders will reach 1800m above sea level.
However stage 13, Foix to Saint-Lary-Soulan, will surely split the field to pieces, and perhaps have an effect on the overall result. The stage consists of seven major climbs including the Peyresoude and the stage finishes on the gruelling Col de Port d’ Aspet. The hardest stage of the race may well be a launch pad for whoever is trailing the yellow jersey.
The Pyrenean finale on stage 14 covers the Tourmalet and Col d’ Aspin, and although it is not as hard as the previous few days it may still have an effect on the race. Last years final day in the mountains saw Armstrong crack, Heras crash and Ullrich attack. Whoever is in yellow will be drained physically and mentally but will still have to be attentive to late attacks.
Despite the lack of Pantani, Zulle and Escartin the race is surely going to be a hard fought and exciting one. Ullrich is looking fitter and stronger than last year and Armstrong will have to be at his best to stay ahead of him. The emergence of Beloki and the chance of another unknown rider making a big impression means this Tour could be a classic one.