If you're as sick as I am of the recently concluded, fourteen-hour time differing, multi-national hodge-podge that is the World Cup, then the Tour de France, with its comforting six hour time difference, core-western values, and ever-assuring presence of speakers of Latin and Germanic-based languages, should serve as a welcome antidote.
Come July 6, Cyclists from across Europe, along with a handful from the United States, and smaller handful still from Colombia who have taken time off from the semi-illicit drug trade and highly illicit mountainous farming, and received exemptions for their understandably elevated hemocrit tallies will descend on Luxembourg for the prologue time trial (a mere 7km) that kicks off this year's three week pinnacle of cycling (excepting the Giro d' Italia to Italians and, to a lesser degree, the Vuelta a Espana for Spaniards).
This year's race is a classic (though shorter and supposedly easier, in order to eliminate the sport's recent turn to drugs), winding counter-clockwise through northern France, before heading through the Pyrenees and the Alps for five stages with mountaintop finishes (in addition to the three time trials), on its way towards the finish in Paris on the Champs-Elysses.
While Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race's director, has assembled an admirable field of 189 riders racing for 21 teams from eight countries, it seems almost certain that no one will be able to prevent American, though really, just a Texan, Lance Armstrong (riding for the U.S. Postal Service team) from winning his fourth consecutive Tour and in the process surpassing Greg Lemond's record for number of wins by an American (three).
Even when the field was at its toughest, Armstrong cakewalked his way to victory. This year, his two major competitors, the German Jan Ullrich (not so affectionately known to the Spanish-speaking world as "El Gordo"), who has finished second each year to Armstrong, in addition to winning in 1997, and Italian Gilberto Simoni, winner of the 2001 Giro d'Italia, are both absent. The latter is serving a suspension after traces of cocaine were found in his blood during this year's drug-tarnished Giro, while Ullrich has a knee-injury, although just this week he too has become enmeshed in a drug scandal.
That leaves the quiet and un-adventuresome Spaniard Jesoba Beloki (ONCE), who has finished third each year Armstrong has won, as one of the few established contenders. Unfortunately for Armstrong foes, Beloki has shown little daring and doesn't seem to possess the tools to seriously challenge Armstrong, though he will likely find his way into the top three. Riding with Beloki on ONCE is Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who finished fifth in last year's Tour and, perhaps more impressively, beat Armstrong in a time trial in a warm-up race prior to the Tour.
Together, Beloki and de Galdeano could function like Pedro Delgado and Miquel Indurain in the '90 Tour. The two teamed up to challenge the eventual winner, Lemond. Ultimately, their effort failed, with the established Delgado superceding the younger and more talented Indurain, which likely cost the latter a serious shot at the win. Beloki and de Galdeano are hardly Indurain and Delgado, but if they team up and are willing to launch repeated and sustained attacks on Armstrong in the mountains, especially early in the Pyrenees, they could pave the way to their own high finishes, while also opening the door for a crafty and opportunistic challenger. Remember though, this is a pipedream.
Other possible challengers in the general classification include American Tyler Hamilton (CSC Tiscali), who finished a convincing second in the Giro earlier this year, and Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov (Dutch Telkom), who now finds himself thrust into the spotlight as a result of teammate Ullrich's absence. Supporting Vinokourov is one of the most established teams in cycling today, which features Erik Zabel, the sprinter and stage winner par excellance, along with Americans Bobby Julich (who finished third in 97 and seventeenth the year before) and Kevin Livingston.
The French have been without a win in their own race for quite a while (the early mid-eighties was their last heyday). Their best hope this year is Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole). Winner of the prologue time trial last year and fourth-place finisher in 2000, Moreau's satisfactory climbing and strong time-trialing abilities should allow him to put comfortable distance between himself and the more serious climbers, which could then afford him a high finish.
It is however unlikely that any of these more complete riders will be able to stay with Armstrong when he throws down the hammer in all his hammer-throwing splendor in the mountains. Those who could possibly beat Armstrong in the mountains most likely lack the time trialing skills to seriously challenge him. An exception, and my vote for this year's dark horse, is Columbian Santiago Botero, who rides for the Spanish Kelme team. While Botero won the King of the Mountains jersey two years ago, he is first and foremost a time trialist. This combination could provide him with the balance necessary to challenge Armstrong throughout the three-week race. However, as is so often the case with Armstrong, it seems that he is still simply a step ahead of Botero on each count.
Helping Botero is Oscar Sevilla, who is more of a pure climber and was last year's Best Young Rider (perhaps these two could also function as an Delgado/Indurain pair). A high finish is likely and a stage win in the Pyrenees would be quite the feather in his cap, but serious contention is questionable. Other riders who will no doubt garner publicity, if not the overall win, are two Frenchmen: Laurent Jalabert and Richard Virenque. Jalabert was supposed to be a contender through much of the mid-nineties after starting his career as a sprinter, but last year he surprised everyone by winning the King of the Mountains jersey, in spite of his struggles on the high mountains. Challenging him this year for the King of the Mountains is the much beleaguered, but attractive and controversial as ever, Virenque.
Virenque (now riding for Domo-Farm Frites, that's right, a French-fry maker sponsors a cycling team) wasn't allowed to race last year after finally admitting to doping, despite nearly two years of denials. This should tarnish one's picture of Virenque. But in another more important, fundamental, and perhaps original way, it really shouldn't at all. The bottom line is this: Virenque is a dramatic rider who has pulled out his fair share of gutsy stage wins. Certainly, he's something of a showboat and a pretty boy, not to mention a confessed cheat, but everyone in cycling cheats (some just don't get caught). Thus, one ought not to hold that against him.
Besides, most Americans take a certain joy in crapping on the French. More than a few were delighted with France's early and ignominious exit from the World Cup. Maybe that's fair, but generally hating the French, and specifically Virenque, isn't. He's a five-time winner of the King of Mountains and in 1997 he came perilously close, along with his Festina team, to cracking Ullrich and taking the race, something which was missed in the age of television coverage. Although past his days of serious contention, a win in the King of the Mountains is a possibility. Such a win would tie the record for most wins ever in this category.
The competition for the Green Points Jersey, given to the best sprinter, is as open as ever, with a hoard of old standbys vying once again for this title. The likely winner is Erik Zabel, but expect challenges from Australians Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen. Other possible winners are Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu and Belgian Tom Steels, who was, interestingly enough, thrown out of the race several years ago for punching several other riders during a sprint finish. This rampage concluded with the chucking of a water bottle. Whether any of these riders will beat Zabel is up for debate, although almost certainly three or four of them, if not all of them, will win the sprint finishes in which the flat stages typically culminate.
In the end Armstrong will win. At this time, he dwarfs every other rider. The past three years have been truly astounding examples of Armstrong's strength. The power he has displayed, both in time trials and in the mountains, is unmatched. Additionally, his team is stellar; it includes the brilliant Spanish rider and turncoat Roberto Heras. Apparently Armstrong is no longer the arrogant jerk he was in his pre-cancer, unsuccessful days, but that doesn't mean you should like him.
Here's why: first, he's still arrogant; second, even by cycling standards, he has no personality; third, he hasn't shown sufficient respect for the French or their cycling establishmentit's their sport, along with the Italians, and he ought to honor that, as Lemond did before him; fourth, and this is the real trump card, I don't like him. So if you must root for an American, don your Hamilton, Julich, or Livingston hat. As for the others, Beloki and Botero will end up on the podium. Zabel will take the green points jersey. The king of the mountains is more up in the air: here's hoping Virenque takes it. Regardless, watch the daily coverage on Outside Living Network (two or three hours a day), especially the mountain stages and time trials, and for God's sake, dare to dream think of Virenque, Botero, Beloki, Julich, even Heras, and forget Armstrong.