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Tour Preview: Who Can Challenge Armstrong?

Let’s face it – we live for the Tour… Sure there are lots of great races that keep us going through the season, but it’s the Tour that makes the year. Let’s see a show of hands out there – who doesn’t feel a bit bummed when the Tour is over?…thought so… So in our own effort to make the party last longer, we present the first in our series of Tour Features – This week Gordon Camshron looks at Armstrong’s main challengers for “le maillot jaune”.

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We all know the physical capabilities, tactical acumen and sheer desire to win that make up a certain Mr. Lance Armstrong, so perhaps there’s no need to
delve into his chances of taking another Tour victory this year. But if Lance is going to make it 4 in a row, surely the most interesting fight will be for the podium places, right? OK, that’s a little facetious, but with
Ullrich injured, Pantani the pirate sinking fast, Simoni and Garzelli
otherwise engaged, and Casero’s Team Coast not selected, Pezcyclingnews
takes a look at those likely to be Armstrong’s challengers this July.

Oscar Sevilla (Kelme, Spain)
Young Oscar is an ace climber who has been consistent this year, without
racing too much. 6th at the Tour of Aragon and 2nd at Classiques des Alpes
suggests his strength has been managed for July, and he should be fresh
after only a few weeks of competition. But despite his ability in the
mountains, his time-trialling is not in Armstrong’s class. He lost the 2001
Vuelta in a last stage TT; can he gain enough in the mountains to counteract
this weakness?

Santiago Botero (Kelme, Columbia)
Backed by a talented team of climbers, the Kelme tandem of Botero and
Sevilla should manage at least a podium place and stage win between them.
Botero lead their 1-2 at the recent Classiques des Alpes, is a fine
time-trialler who beat Armstrong at the Dauphinй Liberй, and climbs
brilliantly, too. Remember his Brianзon stage win in 2000? He could pull off
something similar this year, finishing well up the GC, but Armstrong will be
watching closely.

Joseba Beloki (ONCE, Spain)
Beloki maybe does himself a disservice by claiming his aim is to finish in
2nd. On the podium in the last 2 years, you can’t fault his consistency, but
does he have the necessary strength or brilliance to go any higher? Although
he’s solid in all disciplines, it looks unlikely, but the ONCE team machine
is in good working order, and if there is a tacit agreement between them and
the Kelme boys to attack Armstrong together, things could get interesting.

Christophe Moreau (Crйdit Agricole, France)
At 31, time is against Moreau, and he needs to produce the goods this year.
But he’s capable against the clock, and is a front group climber in the
mountains, as he proved winning the Dauphinй Liberй last year. He lead the
Tour after winning the 2001 prologue and knows what the French expect of
him. However, being France’s only realistic podium challenger, his battle
may be as much mental as physical, knowing that one bad day in the hills and
it’s all over.

Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank, USA)
Rabobank have never quite made the podium with Boogerd, but Leipheimer could
be the man to change that. Last year’s revelatory breakthrough at the Vuelta
was outstanding, and saw the American time-trial and climb with the best in
a hugely competitive race. If he’s focused enough to handle the pressure of
being a leader, he could go top 5, but Rabobank are a team of stage winners,
and might not have the capability (or will?) to support an overall
contender.

Tyler Hamilton (CSC-Tiscali, USA)
After his brilliant 2nd, and time-trial win at the Giro, in his first Grand
Tour as a team leader, the pressure is off the calm Bostonian. If he
recovers his fitness, he can go for it and see how far he gets. Super
against the watch, he’s been immense in the mountains at Armstrong’s side
over the last 3 years. But there’s the rub. Riding for yourself, and working
for a strong leader are very different, so how will Hamilton get on
attacking a boss to whom he was so loyal?

Iban Mayo (Euskaltel, Spain)
Young, gifted and very exciting, Mayo could explode into the big time this
July, and if he impresses, it will probably be a last hurrah with his Basque
team as he’s highly sought-after.
A thrilling climber, the Pyrrenean stages to La Mongie and Plateau-de-Beille
are ideally suited to his attacks in front of a fanatical Basque support.
With prestige wins in the French mountains last year, more of the same in
2002 would cement his growing reputation.

Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom, Kazakhstan)
Jan Ullrich’s absence has opened the door for the talented Kazakh to push
his own ambitions. Some suggest riding for Telekom has stifled his career,
but he’s already won a number of high profile events, including Paris-Nice
and an Olympic silver, and the top 5 is a possibility. On form he’s a better
climber than time-triallist, but his all-round power is an invaluable asset.
If he can’t handle a 3 week push for the GC, hunting for a stage win is a
more attractive option.

Andrei Kivilev (Cofidis, Kazakhstan)
Like his friend Vino’, Kivilev is a graduate of the outstanding Kazakh
amateur team of the mid-90s. He finished fourth in last year’s Tour after
benefitting from an escape that gained half an hour. The rest of the Tour
peloton know his strengths, so he won’t get the same opportunities this
time, but his climbing is excellent, and his results have been consistent
this season. This year’s Tour might be the chance to make a career-enhancing
breakthrough.

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