The 91st Tour de France, July 3-25, 2004
You’re going to be hearing about it for the next month, so here’s a little background.
On Saturday, 189 riders embark upon the 91st Tour de France. The objective is to cover roughly 2,107 miles through the French countryside in a series of 21 races in the shortest aggregate amount of time. Each day’s race is called a stage and for the Tour there are 20 different stages, in addition to the first day’s individual time trial/warm-up called the Prologue. There are 21 teams with nine riders each. One rider is the team leader who the rest of the team is working to support to the finish. The rest of the team is composed of sprint and climbing specialists to guide the leader through the stages and domestiques (the guys that do the grunt work). This year, 11 of the stages cover flat, rolling terrain and six are in the mountains of the Pyrennees and the French Alps. For these stages the riders move within the peloton: a swirling, belching, farting, joking, cutthroat mass of adrenaline where teams and individuals constantly jockey for position. The remaining stages are conducted as time trials where riders are solely racing against the clock. For this year’s Tour, there are two individual time trials, plus the prologue, and a team trial where the team races as a group with individuals receiving the time for the fifth rider on the team.
For such a prestigious sporting event, the Tour has a relatively small purse. 3 million Euros, split up with 400K going to the overall winner (tradition dictating that the winner divides that among his teammates) and the remainder spread out for various bonuses, individual stages, and other standings. The Maillot Jeune, the famous yellow jersey of the tour, is awarded daily to the rider with the lowest total time. Additionally, riders compete for the a green, polka-dot, and white jersey for best sprinter, climber, and best rider under 25 years old, respectively.
LANCE ARMSTRONG (U.S.) U.S. Postal/Berry Floor
Trying to make it six, how much does Armstrong have left in the tank? Last year he contended with a failing marriage, stomach flu, and outright bad luck. This year he has a new girlfriend and faces doping allegations revealed in a new book (which he denies). Still the man to beat although many of his rivals saw last year as the beginning of his decline and are entertaining hopes of being spoilers.
JAN ULLRICH (Germany) T-Mobile
Jan Ullrich is Ivan Drago to Armstrong’s Rocky. He was born and raised in East Germany and inducted into the state athletic development program at an early age before the re-unification. He won the Tour in ’97 prior to Armstrong’s reign and at the time was hailed as having the potential to realize the kind of success that Armstrong has had. Instead he has come in second four times since with absences from the tour in ’99 and 02. He had the strongest team, on paper, but the loss of last year’s third place finisher, Alexander Vinokourov, to a shoulder injury, evens the playing field.
TYLER HAMILTON (U.S.) Phonak
Hamilton became a hero to many last year when he finished in fourth place despite breaking a collarbone in two places on the first stage. Many say that the experience has added the soul of a champion to a rider that already posessed the skills and brains of one. Formerly a rider under Armstrong while with US Postal, he’s been consistently good in time trials, excellent in the mountains, he leads a disciplined, up-and-coming Phonak team.
IBAN MAYO (Spain) Euskaltel
Mayo is a talented Basque rider who is renowned for his climbing. He won the Alpe d’Huez stage last year which will be the site of one of the critical time trials this year. Additionally he won the Dauphine Libere race in April against none other than the current Tour champion.
ROBERTO HERAS (Spain) Liberty-Seguros
Heras was a key member of US Postal who departed after last summer to try his hand at leading a team. He’s an excellent climber and pretty good on time trials. Many will be watching to see just how indispensible he was to US Postal.
IVAN BASSO (Italy)
He’s a young Italian climber, who took seventh place last year and has been consistently improving each year. Is mentioned by most top riders as a serious contender and has a strong team supporting him.
Keys to the Tour
The time trials are going to be huge. The first individual one, Alpe d’Huez, Stage 16, July 21, is also uphill the entire way which will provide riders with the opportunity to make huge time gains or incur huge time losses. The second individual time trial in Besancon Stage 19, July 24, is really the last chance riders will have to win the Tour as the 20th stage is largely a ceremonial ride into Paris and the Champs Elysees. Last years tour was decided by a time margin of 61 seconds which could definitely be made or lost in this time trial. The prologue, is not so huge, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very short, 6.1Km and, second, while most riders want to come out strong and assertive, most don’t want to peak to early. The team time trial will be somewhat important but there is a rule change this year in which individuals can lose no more than 2:30 minutes as a result of the team time trial so teams that aren’t so strong in this event can sandbag and won’t be penalized too severely.
I really think this race will all hinge on the final week. The first week is all flats and will favor sprinters. The second week will have a few climbs and will start in establishing a pecking order. The last week will be absolutely critical with the two time trials and three days of climbs. Stage 17, Le Grand-Bornand, July 22, is what I’m predicting will be the make or break stage this year because is comes the day after the first time trial and I think most of the contenders will try to save themselves for that. Additionally, this stage has the most challenging climbs and I think that is where whoever wins this will have to do it.
The Outdoor Life Network carries live broadcasts every morning and re-broadcasts every evening, check your local listings. (Do I get some kind of endorsement fee for that?)
CBS will be carrying weekly recaps every Sunday on the following dates and times:
July 11 3:00pm EST
July 18 5:00pm EST
July 25 2:00pm EST
If past performance is any indication, these are just the same coverage that OLN has uses but in a condensed format.