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Group effort

T-Mobile team looks strong -- even without Ullrich

Posted: Wednesday July 12, 2006 7:28PM; Updated: Wednesday July 12, 2006 11:53PM
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Eddy Mazzoleni and the T-Mobile team held strong at the front of the main bunch.
Eddy Mazzoleni and the T-Mobile team held strong at the front of the main bunch.
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
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PAU, France -- The question is not whether Cyril Dessel, your new leader, will finish this race -- or even this week -- clad in his sporty new yellow jersey. I think not. I think a group of elite climbers like Floyd Landis and Denis Menchov and Andreas Kloden and Paolo Savoldelli and George Hincapie takes five minutes out of him over Thursday's five beastly climbs in the Pyrenees.

If I am wrong, this 31-year-old Frenchman, a solid but unspectacular talent in his second season with AG2R, might make it to Friday -- Bastille Day -- in the coveted maillot jaune. What a balm that would be for a nation still sulking over its recent loss to Italy in the World Cup soccer final.

The question, to me, is whether the T-Mobile guys can do what they did Wednesday, whenever they want. Because what they did was conduct a clinic, marking their territory at the front of the main bunch, announcing that while other squads might have brighter individual lights -- Landis of Phonak and Rabobank's Menchov seem most dangerous, to me -- the Men In Pink had the strongest overall team. (T-Mobile marketers would prefer we say "magenta" rather than "pink," but please. Pink is pink.)

How it went down: Dessel and 14 others escaped the main bunch early in the 190.5-kilometer ride, which saw the peloton leave the flats of the Aquitaine region and climb into the clouds. Literally. As they neared the top of Wednesday's first monstrous climb, a 1540-meter Pyrenean peak called the Col de Soudet, the riders entered a mist so dense that visibility was limited to 50 meters.

It was into this fog that Dessel and Juan Miguel Mercado escaped, after attacking their fellow breakaway riders whose lead over the peloton was, at one point, 11 minutes.

Mercado just pipped Dessel, whose disappointment was minimal. Having gone into the day just 3:50 adrift of race leader Sergei Gonchar, of T-Mobile, Dessel took the yellow jersey by finishing nearly 7˝ minutes up on the main bunch.

The fact is, that breakaway was allowed to get away by Kloden & Co because it was judged to contain no riders who presented a valid threat to ascend the podium in Paris. At the base of the day's first climb, a phalanx of T-Mobile riders appeared as if conjured by team director Valerio Piva, who may be less traumatized than we realize by the loss, on the eve of the race, of former Tour winner Jan Ullrich.

The truth is, Ullrich had been a bit of a stranger to this team before the decision was made to expel him from the Tour. He suffered an early-season knee injury and had an exceedingly light racing schedule coming into July. The word around the T-Mobile bus is that his teammates, so accustomed to his absences, would have had to make a bigger adjustment if he hadn't been sent home in disgrace.

Befitting the team with the largest annual operating budget in the race -- $30 million compared to the $13 mil spent by Discovery and Phonak -- the T-Mobiles were masterful Wednesday, setting tempo for the main group all afternoon. Doing the heavy lifting were plebeians Matthias Kessler, Eddy Mazzoleni and Patrik Sinkewitz, who broke the wind -- please spare me your sophomoric asides: I'm badly sleep deprived and can't think of another way to say it -- for GC threats Michael Rogers and Kloden.