Monday, July 18, 2005

Tour de France, Rest Day

It's the second and last Rest Day for the cyclists of the Tour de France -- well, the 158 of them that are left after 15 grueling stages. As was expected, both the Alps and Pyrenees sorted out the contenders -- the strongest riders surged to the front of the standings after a first week of flat stages that favored the last-minutes sprints for the finish line, often the province of the very riders that falter in the mountains. And as everyone expected but I hoped against, Lance Armstrong sits atop the standings, over two minutes ahead of his closest rival, Ivan Basso, and seven stages short of his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory.

Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile's team leader, perpetual Tour contender, and my favorite stands in fourth place, almost six minutes behind Armstrong and three minutes behind Danish racer Mikael Rasmussen. While I am disappointed that Ullrich hasn't fared better, he can still make it to the podium come July 24th. There is one mountain stage left, and considering Ullrich's solid performance thus far, it's safe to guess he'll hold his position at the top of the standings through until the penultimate stage, a 55-kilometer individual time trial. This is where he can best challenge Rasmussen, an able climber whose lackluster time trialing left him in 174th place after Stage 1, a short individual time trial. Should Ullrich maintain his position and do well in the time trial, as many expect, I would dare to guess that he'll place third overall (which, all told, must be torture, given that he has won once, placed second five times, and fourth last year).

This leads into my thoughts of the day, today focused on Ullrich. The German is a proven cyclist who even when in bad shape tends to finish in the Top Ten of some of the circuit's toughest races. But he just can't seem to break into the top spot, no matter how hard he tries. I don't know if it's bad luck, poor form, or a lack of mental preparation -- he seems to be condemned to being second best.

Watching Stage 15 yesterday was instructive -- Ullrich hung at the front of the pack over the course of the entire stage, surging forward to challenge both Basso and Armstrong. The three raced up the steep climbs of the Pyrenees together, trading turns at the front and preparing for what could have been a spectacular finish. But then Basso attacked, Armstrong responded, and Ullrich stayed put, settling for a finish over a minute after the two top contenders. I can't say exactly what it was I was feeling as I saw the gap increase, but it was a mix of confusion and disappointment. Both Basso and Armstrong attacked gracefully, standing on their pedals and surging forward, digging as far as they could to push themselves faster and faster up the mountain. Ullrich, an impressively strong rider, didn't respond -- he simply maintained his cadence as he worked his way up. I don't know if Ullrich was already at his limit or if yesterday simply confirmed his cycling style -- steady and consistent. This isn't to say Ullrich is a bad cyclist -- after all, he finishes every mountain stage towards the front of the group -- but rather to highlight that he doesn't seem to possess the same ability to stand in the staddle and take off, much like Armstrong and Basso do. They are more artistic in their style, exhibiting a certain flare and dynamism that Ullrich lacks. The man is about as powerful as a truck, but doesn't seem to possess those higher gears needed to really attack on the mountains.

He's still a magnificent cyclist, and best yet, fully aware of his shortcomings and not willing to make excuses for himself. He's still my favorite, though I will remain disappointed that he will always be known as second best to Lance. Always.

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