Lance Armstrong, team USPS is the favourite to repeat his Tour victories of 1999 and 2000. Achievements so far this year include second in the Amstel Gold Race (as he did in 1999), near untouchable form in a tough Tour of Switzerland. The Texan seems physically and mentally stronger than last year. Jan Ullrich, arguably Armstong’s greatest threat this year, will have to be at his best to beat him. The only question mark surrounding Armstrong is the possibility that his form may have peaked to early for the Tour and so he may suffer in the last week.
Jan Ullrich, team Telekom seems to be finally coming into form at the right time, despite the fact that he’s raced nearly twice as much as Armstrong this year – some might say that, once again, he’s had too many cakes over the winter. However he showed patches of form in the Giro d’ Italia and won the German National Title at the weekend in storming fashion. When Ullrich won the Tour in 1997 he was wearing the German National jersey, so perhaps he’s timed his run up well for another serious challenge.
Despite this year’s Tour looking like a two way race between Armstrong and Ullrich, there are a number of other riders who have the potential to cause a few upsets on the road to Paris. They probably won’t be wearing the maillot jaune come the end of July, but they are certainly capable of throwing few spokes in the wheels of the two hot favourites.
Joseba Beloki surprised everyone including himself last year with a spectacular performance that earned him a place on the podium. He was able to stay with Armstrong and Ullrich in the mountains and do more than enough in the time trials. Despite a quiet start with his new ONCE team he showed great form to claim the overall spoils of the Tour of Catalunya. However he now has to deal with leadership pressures and the fact that Armstrong will be keeping a watchful eye over him.
After crashing out of the Giro early on, Francesco Casagrande, Fasso Bortolo, will be looking for revenge in this years Tour. His last appearance in 1998 ended with a crash in the mountains, however in 1997 he finished in a creditable seventh. He may not have the class of the others but if he can find the form that carried him to second in the 2000 Giro d’Italia he may well have a considerable impact on the race. With the likes of Pantani, and Zulle spending July on the beach the Tour lacks many overall contenders who could make it onto the podium. The 2001 Tour may be his chance.
With his traumatic departure from Kelme to US Postal during the winter behind him, Roberto Heras, has become the perfect helper for Armstrong in the mountains. Finishing fifth overall in the Tour last year and going on to win the Vuelta showed that, at 26 years old, he has the potential to win the Tour in the near future. Although this year he is only riding as a domestique, he could still follow his leader all the way onto the podium.
The 2000 King of the Mountains winner Santiago Botero, team Kelme, will be Kelme’s designated leader this year and therefore it’s unlikely that the peleton will allow him to gain time in lone breaks as he did last year. His team looks a lot lighter this year but it’s still likely that the boys in green, white and blue will be setting the mountain peaks of France alight again. If the Columbian fails to mount a challenge then expect the likes of Oscar Sevilla or Aitor Gonzalez to step out of the shadows.
With Joseba Beloki spreading his wings and landing in the arms of Malano Saiz at ONCE, Christophe Moreau will lead the Festina charge this year. His fourth place last year was built around solid time trials and more than respectable efforts in the mountains. The French haven’t had a winner since Bernard Hinault in 1986 and will cling their hopes to anyone has the slightest chance of victory. Whether this is an advantage or a hinderance on the versatile is yet to be seen, but the form he showed in the Dauphine Liberie shows he’s eager and ready to race.