Tour Contenders Continue to Emerge

Jul 16, 2004
Outside Magazine

The Tour de France offered up a few surprises during Stage 12, during which we saw the emergence of some new potential challengers for the yellow jersey, and some signs of weakness that may cost a few pre-race favorites their chance to win the Tour this year.

Italian Ivan Basso confirming his potential as a Tour de France challenger by matching Lance Armstrong's pace over the final few kilometers of the climb to La Mongie and taking the stage win. Two years ago, Basso won the Best Young Rider jersey at the Tour de France, and though he has won little else since then, the move to Bjarne Riis' CSC team has given him the chance to shine again. Sitting just 1:09 behind Armstrong in the overall classification, he has to be viewed now as a real threat for the overall leadership of the Tour de France.

Another rider who finally delivered on the promise he showed a few years ago was German champion Andreas Klöden. Though he came to the Tour de France to ride in support of Jan Ullrich, Klöden was the only T-Mobile rider who could maintain the fast pace set by the U.S. Postal Service on today's final climb. Behind him on the road, his team leader struggled to find his climbing legs and finished 2:30 behind Armstrong. Now that Ullrich is 3:37 behind Armstrong and Klöden is only 1:09 behind, T-Mobile has two riders within striking distance of the yellow jersey.

In the battle between Armstrong and Ullrich, the weather played into the American's favor today. Ullrich tends to perform best when the temperatures are high, and he suffers in the cold and rain. After climbing and descending the Col d'Aspin in the rain, the 1997 Tour champion struggled to turn his legs over on today's final climb. However, since Armstrong doesn't handle the heat quite as well as he did years ago, Ullrich may be able to turn the tables on him if the weather improves in the coming days.

Clawing back over three minutes will be a tall order for Ullrich, Hamilton, Iban Mayo, and Roberto Heras, but there is no doubt they will try. Before you start thinking Armstrong has his sixth Tour de France in the bag, remember that today was just the first stage in the high mountains and Lance doesn't even have the yellow jersey yet. There are four more very hard days in the mountains, including the individual time trial on Alpe d'Huez. Lance Armstrong's work has just begun, and he needs to increase the time gaps to his rivals by several more minutes in order to have a comfortable lead. Today was a good day, but nothing more. The Tour de France is far from over and the hardest challenges still lay ahead.

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