Tour de France Preview and Predictions
The 2003 Tour de France will be the centenary edition of La Grande Boucle. As such, it will be a bow to Tour history. The race will visit the same six cities that the original event visited: Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes. In addition, it will climb some of the mountain passes that have become legendary, such as the Col du Galibier, the Col d'Izoard, and the Col du Tourmalet. At 3,427.5 km to the 1903 edition's 2,428 km, however, the centennial Tour will visit far more than six cities. The 2003 Tour will consist of a prologue and 20 stages.
The 2003 Tour will begin in Paris at the Eiffel Tower on July 5 with a prologue that runs along the banks of the Seine to the finish at La Maison de la Radio. Stage 1 will begin at Stade de France and will be neutralized until it reaches Montgeron's cafe Le Reveil Matin, where the first Tour began at 3:16 pm on July 5, 1903. The stage will end 168 km later in Meaux.
Stages 2 and 3 will run from La Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Sedan and from Charleville-Mezieres to Saint-Dizier, respectively, and should end in bunch sprints. Stage 4 will be a 68-km team time trial from Joinville to Saint-Dizier. Stage 5 will take the riders from Troyes to Nevers, with the following stage running from Nevers to Lyon, where French bicycle firms Look and Time are located.
Stages 7, 8, and 9 will be Alpine stages. Stage 7, which will run from Lyon to Morzine, will not be excessively challenging, but it will be the 2003 Tour's longest stage at 226.5 km. The following stage will be shorter than Stage 7 (211 km), but it will begin in Sallanches, run over the Col du Galibier, and end at L'Alpe d'Huez. Stage 9 will run from Bourg d'Oisans to Gap and will take the riders over the Col d'Izoard. In Stage 10, the riders will race from Gap to Marseilles, after which the first rest day and a transfer to Narbonne take place.
Stage 11 will run from Narbonne to Toulouse. Stage 12 will be the first individual time trial, which will be a 48.5-km affair from Gaillac to Cap' Decouverte. The next four stages will be Pyrenean ones, with the first, Stage 13, going from Toulouse to Plateau de Bonascre. Stage 14 will run from Aix-les-Thermes to Loudonvielle, with Stage 15 taking the riders from Bagneres de Bigorre over the Col du Tourmalet to Luz Ardiden. After the second rest day, Stage 16 will go from Pau to Bayonne.
Stage 17 will run from Dax to Bordeaux and should end in a bunch sprint, with the following stage running from Bordeaux to Saint-Maixent l'Ecole. Stage 19 will be a 49-km individual time trial from Pornic to Nantes, and Stage 20 will run from Ville d'Avray, where the first Tour finished, to Paris.
What do past and present racers think of this year's Tour route? Gilberto Simoni (Saeco), the winner of the 2003 Giro d'Italia, said, "I like the idea that the race goes to the Alps right away. It's not going to be one of the toughest Tours...I believe that this Tour is tailor made for [Lance] Armstrong [U.S. Postal Service]." Pedro Delgado, winner of the 1988 Tour, declared, "This is a very balanced Tour de France...This is not a Tour for the best climbers. So [the] number one favorite is Lance Armstrong, and also Jan Ullrich [Team Bianchi]." Richard Virenque (Domo) stated, "There's something for everyone...for the sprinters, climbers, rouleurs, and attackers."
Greg Lemond should have the last word. The three-time Tour winner (1986, 1989, and 1990) likes the course. "I like it - it's a nice Tour," he said. "It's not particularly hard, and it's a good 'dosed' race, I guess you'd say. I always look at the course as kind of irrelevant. The strongest usually wins, on a hard course or an easy course. You have to be at your best in July."
Who will be at his best in July? Four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) figures to be. His spring benchmark races, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race, went well, and the man from Austin repeated as the winner of the Dauphine Libere. The addition of Spanish mountain goat Manuel Beltran has strengthened Armstrong's supporting cast. It all adds up to one thing, a fifth consecutive Tour victory for Lance Armstrong.
Second place is less certain than first. Jan Ullrich's (Team Bianchi) training has gone well, and he placed seventh in the Tour of Switzerland. The Kaiser might not have enough racing under his belt to finish second in the Tour, however. The Tour's two long time trials will suit him, and he might ride himself into form as the race proceeds. If Ullrich does so, then second place is a good bet for him.
If Ullrich cannot finish second, then Giro d'Italia champion Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) should do so--if he has recovered from the Giro. Simoni might be the only climber who can put Armstrong in difficulty in the mountains. However, Simoni stands to lose at least three minutes in the two long time trials. His mediocrity against the clock should keep him off of the podium's top step.
Joseba Beloki (ONCE) has the tools to win the Tour. Perhaps he lacks the killer instinct to do so. The Basque rider has never won a major tour, and he will not open his account with the 2003 Tour. As Beloki has done in the past, he will ride consistently but not brilliantly. He will not ride well enough to win the Tour, and he might not ride well enough to finish on the podium.
Santiago Botero (Telekom) makes cycling fans shake their heads in disbelief. The time trial world champion has the climbing ability and the time-trialing skill to win a three-week race, but he has never done so. The reason for the Colombian's failure is his inconsistency. Botero will climb like a champion on one stage and will lose 15 minutes on the following one. During the 2003 Tour, that pattern will continue. Botero will finish in fifth place.
Tyler Hamilton (CSC) has improved dramatically during his time with CSC. His stage win and second place at the 2002 Giro, along with his victories at this year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Tour of Romandy, prove that Hamilton has moved to a higher level. His improvement should continue during the Tour. He is a strong enough climber to stay with the best most of the time, and his time trialing will help him to gain time on many of the other contenders. The man from Marblehead should be good for sixth place.
Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) should move up one place from last year's eighth place. The American has good climbing skills and very good to excellent time trialing ability. His tendency to become stronger as the race goes on will work in his favor. Leipheimer should have another fine Tour.
Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) will be a force in the mountains, particularly the Pyrenees. The Basque rider won the Tour of the Basque Country, finished second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and won two stages en route to a second-place finish in the Dauphine Libere. He won the latter's prologue and finished second in its longer time trial. Mayo is a well-rounded rider who might finish higher than eighth.
Roberto Heras (U.S. Postal Service) will be chained to team captain Lance Armstrong. He will, however, ride very well in the mountains in support of Armstrong. Expect the Spaniard to ride well en route to a ninth place finish.
Last year, Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo) finished 11th in his Tour debut. He won the best young rider competition and was Italy's highest placed rider. Because he is ineligible for this year's young rider competition and because Gilberto Simoni will ride in this year's Tour, Basso will win neither distinction. He will, however, ride a strong, consistent race in the mountains. Basso should move up a place to 10th.
In the King of the Mountains competition, look for Simoni, Botero, and Mayo to battle it out. Simoni is hard to handicap after riding the Giro, but he is an awesome climber. Botero won the KOM competition in 2001 and is capable of doing it again. Mayo is an outstanding young climber who could take the competition while fighting for a GC spot.
In the points competition, Robbie McEwen (Lotto) is the man to beat. After an injury-marred early season, the Australian won two stages of the Giro d'Italia and one of the Tour of Switzerland. He is fit, and his morale is high. He should win over Erik Zabel (Telekom), who is past his prime but who can still ride consistently, and countrymen Stuart O'Grady (Credit Agricole) and Baden Cooke (La Francaise des Jeux.com).
The time for prognosticating and guessing is over. The battle will soon begin. Who will win it? Check out http://www.roadcycling.com/ and find out!
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