Tour de France Preview and Predictions
The 2004 Tour de France will provide no rest for the weary. The race will take a counterclockwise route and be 3,395 km long. It will feature six mountain stages and three mountaintop finishes, along with a prologue and three time trials, one of which will be a team time trial. The winner of the race will not simply be the strongest rider; he will be the best rounded one.
The Tour will begin in Liege, Belgium with a six-km prologue. Stages 1 to 3 will run over many of the routes of the Belgian classics. These stages will be ridden like classics, with hard, hilly courses and aggressive riding. Stage 3 will begin in Waterloo, the site of the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Fortunately, no one will be killed there.
Stage 4 will be the first stage to be ridden in France. It will be a 65-km team time trial from Cambrai to Arras that will provide the first indication of team strength. Stages 5 to 8 will be sprinters' stages across northern and northwestern France. Look for riders such as Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), and Robbie McEwen (Lotto) to shine.
The first rest day will follow Stage 8. From Stages 9 to 11, the peloton will make its way toward the Pyrenees. Stages 12 and 13 will be the first mountain stages. Stage 12 will be a 199-km ride from Castelsarrasin to La Mongie that will feature the Col d'Aspin and a mountaintop finish. Stage 13, a 217-km ride from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille, will have five climbs. Stage 14 will take the riders out of the Pyrenees before the Tour's second rest day.
After the rest day, the riders plunge into the Alps. Stage 15, a 179-km run from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans, will go over half a dozen mountain passes, and Stage 16 will be a 15-km mountain time trial from Bourg d'Oisans to L'Alpe d'Huez. Stage 17 will be a 212-km ride from Annemasse to Lons le Saulnier that will feature five climbs.
Stage 19 will be the riders' final test. It will be a 60-km time trial around Besancon that will decide the winner and sort out general classification positions. Stage 20, a 165-km run from Montreau to Paris, will be a procession for the winner.
Who will the winner be? Although Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) has given me less reason to make him the No. 1 seed than he did from 2000 to 2003, I can give him that seed with a clear conscience. Armstrong is the complete package. He is training, motivation, experience, nutrition, and tactics rolled into one. Although Armstrong failed to win the Tour de Languedoc et Rousillon, he did win a stage and finish sixth overall. Armstrong finished third at the Dauphine Libere, and aside from the time trial that he lost to overall winner Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) by 2:00, Armstrong rode well, finishing fourth overall. Armstrong and his camp have maintained that the five-time Tour winner was training through those events to peak for the last week of the Tour. Even Armstrong's rivals have claimed that his performances in those two races were not indicative of his fitness. It all adds up to one thing, an unprecedented sixth Tour de France triumph in what I believe will be Armstrong's valedictory.
As was the case last year, Places 2, 3, and 4 are hard to handicap. Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) has won his annual Battle of the Bulge, and his stage win at the Tour of Germany and his overall victory at the Tour de Suisse indicate that he is ready to give Armstrong a ride for his money. However, Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) are also ready, and both the American and the Basque have been in shape and racing well all season. Hamilton won the Tour de Romandie, and Mayo took the Dauphine Libere and claimed that he has much room for improvement. Ullrich should finish second, however, and Hamilton should edge out Mayo for third.
Ivan Basso (CSC) will finish fifth. He climbs well and has good time trialing skills. Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) has excellent climbing skills, but he does not time trial as well as Basso. He will finish sixth.
Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) has recovered from his injuries in the Stage 1 crash in last year's Tour de France. He won Stage 4 of the Catalan Week, and his preparation has gone well. His climbing and time trialing skills should get him seventh place.
Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) will finish eighth. He is a very good climber whose only advantage over Oscar Sevilla (Phonak) is that he is a team leader, while Sevilla, who will finish ninth, will be chained to team leader Tyler Hamilton.
Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) will ride well for his leader, Iban Mayo. He will not ride as well as last year, however, because Mayo will probably need him more. Pencil him in for tenth.
In other competitions, either Baden Cooke (La Francaise des Jeux.com) or Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) will win the green jersey, and Richard Virenque (Quick Step) will take the polka dot jersey. Don't miss the action! Check in at http://www.roadcycling.com/ to keep up with the battles for the golden fleece as well as the green and polka dot jerseys! Visit our 2004 Tour de France section today!