In preparation for the deluge, I'm going to try and be a little more responsible and explain what I'm writing, starting with the riders. You all know Armstrong, or at the very least you've worn the yellow Livestrong bracelets as fashion accessories, so I'll save my efforts by writing about the contenders.
The anointed challenger: Ullrich
Tour de France finishes:
- 1997: 1st
- 1998: 2nd
- 1999: did not race (Armstrong's first Tour win)
- 2000: 2nd
- 2001: 2nd
- 2002: did not compete
- 2003: 2nd
- 2004: 4th
It is my opinion that Armstrong perenially names Ullrich as his one and only "challenger" in order to stick a big target on the guy's back. If Ullrich is "The Challenger," it makes him a marked man -- all other contenders have to beat Ullrich first. Not only does this make it harder for Ullrich to get away from the pack, but it also means that all the contenders are fighting for second place -- only after they have beaten Ullrich can they fight for first place.
Ullrich rides on strength: he's often riding in a much bigger gear than the other riders, which makes it difficult for him to respond to mountain attacks, though he's very fast in the time trials.
Biggest weakness: Armstrong. Ullrich may have won the Tour, but that was before Armstrong's reign, and last year Ullrich couldn't even manage his perennial second place.
Silver lining: Ullrich's failures are often blamed for his off-season antics, which basically involve getting fat and doing party drugs. He claims he's more mature now, though he said the same last year.
The Top 3 Challengers
The three main challengers (according to Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's team director): Ullrich, Vinokourov, and Basso
Vinokourov is one of my favorite riders -- he's performed well in the Tour de France (3rd in 2003, missed 2004 due to injury), and he makes stages exciting. He's not afraid to attack on the big climbs, and when he attacks he often wins. Few top riders are as aggressive as he is, so he'll keep some excitement in the mix.
Biggest Weakness: notice the same pink jersey as Ullrich? Ullrich is the anointed one, and Vino will be riding in support of Ullrich. This didn't stop Ullrich's teammate Kloden from usurping him last year, but it does make it more difficult: Armstrong has 8 riders riding for him, Vino (for the moment) has none.
Silver lining: Riding for Ullrich leaves Vino unencumbered. He can relish putting some pain into Armstrong, sacrificing his own chances at the overall.
is another one of my favorite riders. Unlike Armstrong, he tried to go big this year and race both the Giro di Italia and Tour de France. His grand ambitions already took a hit -- a stomach bug during the Giro knocked him out of the leader's jersey when he had seemed unbeatable. Despite being sick and having the embarrassment of going from race lead to 50+ minutes back, Basso stayed in the competition and went on to win two stages.
Basso was glued to Armstrong's wheel last year throughout the tough mountain stages when all other competitors were failing, but Armstrong's superior time trial ability kept Armstrong out of reach.
Silver lining: Basso won the Stage 18 time trial in the Giro. He's been working on his time trial form so he be able to close that gap.
Biggest weakness: He cracked in the Giro, he could crack again. Also, it's hard to get in top shape for two three-week races, so it's hard to know whether or not Basso will be peaking going into the Tour or on the decline.
Other big names
Floyd Landis: A former teammate of Armstrong and a big part of his 2004 victory, he's now promoted to a leader position on Team Phonak. It's a shared title, and from his VeloNews interview he sounds like a rider going for stage wins, not the overall.
Santiago Botero: Landis' teammate, Botero does well in the time trials and in the mountains. That's a killer combination for the Tour, one that Armstrong wields with impunity, but he has to share the leader's title with Landis.
Levi Leipheimer: He's American, he's good, and he's been a top ten contender. The main question is whether or not he's a top three contender. He placed third in the Dauphine Libere, which is the Tour de France tune-up, so he could put in a good performance.
Roberto Heras: Another former teammate of Armstrong, and one who has performed big in the grand tours, including three Vuelta a Espanas. His main strength is climbing up mountains very, very fast, but he wasn't on form last year, and he hasn't been notable this year, so who knows if he's playing coy, saving his efforts for the Vuelta, or just plain off. Heras' co-captain Joseba Beloki hasn't seemed to have recovered from his horrific crash in the 2003 Tour, so it wouldn't seem that Beloki has regained a contender status.
Iban Mayo: he'll be the guy in orange flying up the mountains, if he's on form. He may have some bold attacks like he did last year, but that may leave him open to his big weakness last year: losing 37 minutes on lucky Stage 13.
Dave Zabriskie: He actually has no chance of winning the Tour, but I put him here because:
* Two blistering time trial performances in the Giro, winning one and finishing second to his teammate Basso in the other
* He's the only pro rider I've taken decent photos of
* He's an American rider, and there aren't that many at that level
* His hilarious Web site, including his "One Question Interviews" done on the road, during the race, like this one with Charlie Wegelius of the Liquigas Team:
DZ: Charlie have you ever actually had Liquigas?
CW: You mean like when the s*#t comes out of your ass in a Liquid?
CW: I had to quit the Giro in 2003 because of it.
DZ: Thanks for the interview.