Posted: Wednesday February 1, 2006 1:16PM; Updated: Wednesday February 1, 2006 1:16PM
Two riders stand above the rest of the pro peloton as favorites for the '06 tour: CSC's Ivan Basso, who finished second last year and third in '04. The Italian must contend with T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, whose morale seems to have been boosted immeasurably by the departure of Armstrong, who says of his ex-archrival, "This is a guy who's clearly got a new motivation, a new perspective on his sport." Armstrong pointed out that with the upcoming Tour's emphasis on time trials, and the fact that its mountain stages aren't particularly hard, "The course suits him ... I think he wins."
Three nights later, while being debriefed onstage by Roll (who had introduced him by saying, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, a former leg shaver ... and the reason I'm here,") Discovery's Stud Emeritus speculated that the Tour could take an unexpected turn. If CSC and T-Mobile bicker about whose job it is to take charge, and neither does, "that's going to open the race up, and we may have a surprise winner."
If that underdog is wearing teal, which Discovery rider would it be? Whether or not Bruyneel knows -- he must have a pretty good idea -- he isn't ready to show us that card just yet. Asked at the team presentation on Jan. 24 whom Discovery will ride for in the Tour de France, he narrowed the candidates to four cyclists. The biggest/only surprise of the day was that Tom Danielson, winner of the '05 Tour de Georgia and a rider often touted as Armstrong's heir, didn't make that short list. Indeed, Bruyneel proclaimed that "Danielson will not ride in the Tour."
Whether this is etched in stone, or if the director was merely trying to motivate Danielson, remains to be seen. (Bruyneel may or may not have realized, when he made this announcement, that the riders, having left the stage, had slipped into seats in the auditorium. One witness reported that, upon hearing that he would not be riding in the Tour de France, Danielson seemed a tad blue). We do know this: after winning in Georgia, Danielson had to abandon last year's Giro d'Italia with a bum knee. But he rallied strongly late in the season, finishing eighth in the Tour of Spain, only his second grand (three-week) Tour. Built like a jockey, Danielson is gifted climber, and will return to Italy this May for the '06 Giro, whose Dolomite climbs are shorter than the uphills of the Tour de France, but steeper, and as such well suited to the wraithlike Coloradoan.
So who did make Bruyneel's list?
-- Chechu Rubiera, winner of the '97 Giro, a selfless, smiling Spaniard who can climb and time-trial: he has a combined six top-15 finishes in the Tours of Italy and Spain.
-- Jose Azevedo: like Chechu, an integral member of the Spanish Armada of climbers who paced Armstrong to his recent Tour wins. His teammates still rave about his '04 Tour performance, when he repeatedly set a brutal pace up the climbs in the Pyrenees, effectively whittling contenders to two: Armstrong and Basso.
-- Yaroslav Popovych: the Ukrainian flash finished 12th in his first-ever Tour de France, and played a key role in Armstrong's seventh victory. On the final climb of the first mountain stage -- when the Texan customarily makes his move -- it was Popo who took the final pull, before sending Armstrong up the Courchevel alone. So furious was the pace Popovych set that Armstrong himself struggled to keep up.
Asked to recount that moment by Roll, Popo shrugged, "When Lance says go, you go."
-- George Hincapie: Keep an eye on the Big Hink, who had a breakout season in '05. Formerly known for his prowess in one-day spring "classics" and as a flatland rider in the Tour, Hincapie has worked hard in the mountains around his home in Greenville, S.C., to hone his climbing skills. Where he once competed at 178 pounds, the 6-foot-3 Hincapie was down to a sinewy 165 last summer. He won the first and last stages of the Dauphine-Libere, a Tour tune-up, then scored the biggest victory of his career on July 17th, outdueling Oscar Pereiro to the line atop a Pyrenean peak called the Pla d'Adet.
Free at last, absent Armstrong, to stop hiding his lamp under a bushel, the quiet man from Queens could make a lot of noise next July.
How refreshing and interesting that the spotlight on the Discovery riders will not, for once, be reflecting off Armstrong. How intriguing it will be, to see Bruyneel lying in the weeds. He was very pleased, at the sponsor's dinner, with the way the guys had worked in training camp. "Fourteen-hundred kilometers in ten days -- and that does not include some rest days," he said. He noted that, without Armstrong, who did not show up for the last couple of these camps in supreme condition, the pace of this year's rides was faster, more punishing.
He flashed that thin Johan smile, the smile that is here and then gone; the smile of a man who knows something.