A week from Saturday, the world’s attention is going to be focused on Germany… I mean France… well, it’s the Rhone River valley, and Alsace, and who really can tell which country it is? Les Bleus will have gone down to Espana in the World Cup Round of Sixteen on Thursday, or to Brazil in the quarterfinals that afternoon, and attention will shift to le Tour.
Johan Bruyneel, Director Sportif of Discovery, is bullish (that’s optimistic, right? I always get that confused with bearish…) about Disco’s chances this year. With Lance Armstrong’s retirement, and exceptionally strong showings by T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich in the Tour de Suisse and CSC’s Ivan Basso, winner of the Giro d’Italia, Bruyneel feels that Discovery is an underdog in this year’s Tour.
The team is stacked this year, with four or five GC contenders – long-time Armstrong lieutenant and Classics strongman, George Hincapie; two-time Giro d’Italia winner Paolo Salvodelli; 14-time Tour rider and Olympic time trial silver medalist Viatcheslav Ekimov; 2005’s fifth place TdF finisher Jose Azevedo; and former Under-23 World Champion and future Grand Tour star Yaroslav Popovych. Bruyneel feels that any of these men are capable of winning the Tour.
Team Discovery channel is also bringing a quiver of attackers, tasked to “create trouble for the other teams”. Chechu Rubieria and Egoi Martinez will be on the attack whenever possible. Discovery’s Director Sportif was especially excited about this new twist, noting that not having to defend a specific General Classification contender from day one means that they will be able to put additional pressure on the major contenders, guys by the “name of Ullrich, name of Basso” according to Bruyneel. Bruyneel noted that the Discovery Channel (former US Postal) team had passed on many opportunities in the past, but wouldn’t miss any chances this year.
George Hincapie, coming off a 10th place at the Dauphiné Libéré following recovery from a terrible crash at Paris-Roubaix early in the season, is extremely excited about the possibility to be riding for himself after many years of riding shotgun for Armstrong. After a “very tough” Dauphine, George took a couple of easy days before Team Time Trial practice in Holland, and a few days doing recon on the Alpine stages.
Earlier this year, legend-in-his-own-mind Bob Roll picked George to take it all in Paris. Hincapie doesn’t discount the possibility, but after years of riding in a support roll isn’t sure how he will respond to the spotlight. Going into the Tour, though, he says that he couldn’t be in better shape than he is today.
Bruyneel thinks that Discovery, with the last seven years in the full flood of the Tour de France’s spotlights, brings a little extra something to the table. Physically, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are a step ahead of the competition. Ullrich, in particular, has been Discovery’s “worst enemy”, while Basso is coming up. However, neither T-Mobile nor CSC have the experience of defending the Maillot Jaune for three weeks, and Bruyneel thinks that other teams and managers have really forgotten the pressure of the Tour de France, not only from the demands of the stages, the challenges from other teams, but the intense media scrutiny that accompanies the favorites.
The big German, Jan Ullrich, will be under intense scrutiny. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour Champion, has “no other option but to win the Tour.” Ullrich has publicly stated recently that he intends to keep racing for only one or two more seasons, and would like to go out after a particularly big result. Would victory on the Champs after 9 years be sufficient?
On the question of the American audience for pro cycling surviving Lance’s absence, both Johan Bruyneel and George Hincapie are optimistic. Hincapie thinks that most of Armstrong’s fans will continue following the sport. When discussing non-Discovery GC contenders other than Ullrich and Basso, Bruyneel’s first two suggestions, Floyd Landis of Team Phonak and Levi Leipheimer of Gerlosteiner are both Americans. Additionally, Hincapie thinks that all of the Americans riding in the Tour this year are capable of winning stages.
Team Discovery Channel starts with several GC contenders, and a bunch of guys capable of playing major parts in every big break of the race. Bruyneel is looking for the first individual time trial, and the second stage in the Pyrenees to shake out his contenders. So, the Discos will spend the first half of the race playing spoiler, and the second half protecting their new Leader.
So, for the first time since 1999, the Tour de France starts without a clear-cut favorite, and Johan Bruyneel’s Discovery Channel team are free to mix things up again. There are distinct differences from 1999, namely the return of the second and third place finishers from last year’s tour. In 1999, the Tour was recovering from 1998’s Festina Affair, and neither Ullrich nor the late, great Pirate, Marco Pantani, were racing.