Tour Preview: Meanwhile, Among the Grown-ups...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Tour Preview: Meanwhile, Among the Grown-ups...

A bookie's-eye view of the big race
By Eric Hagerman

Months before this year's Tour de France, and already the rumors were voyant. The course, some claimed, was designed to expose the weakness of three-time defending champion Miguel Indurain. Not so, said indignant race organizers, who just happened to construct a brutal 23-day, 2,463-mile jaunt that, with four consecutive stages in the Alps (three of them mountaintop finishes), just happens to be the toughest in a decade.

Whether the rumors are true or silly, what's certain is that the 81st edition of the race won't be a bore. The indefatigable Indurain remains the favorite, but the field knows him well, and as triple-Tour-winner Greg LeMond can attest, this race has a tradition of treating its favorites rudely. (On the verge of retirement from international racing, LeMond is aiming for simple respectability in this, his last Tour.) As for Lance Armstrong? His coaches are fervently lowballing the youngster's chances, claiming that they'd be thrilled with another stage win and an early ticket home. To which we humbly respond, really? Book him at 20-to-1 to win.

We've heard that Indurain may be an alien, and the rigors of this year's course are sure to expose the true color of his blood, which happens to pump at the leisurely rate of 28 beats per minute. His critics say the strapping Basque--at six-foot-two and 172 pounds--might be too heavy to keep pace when the Tour hits the Alps. Don't count on it. Bottom line, the 29-year-old Indurain is simply different: stronger on the flats, faster in the time trials, and more durable than the rest of the peloton, and he's supported by a strong Banesto team to boot. The one chink in his armor, however, is that he doesn't like rain--a possible factor on days five and six, when the course dips into southeastern England.

He's tough--ranking among the world's best climbers and more than holding his own on the flats--and he's confident. The relentless Swiss won three stages in last year's Tour, including a time trial, lending credence to his boast that he is Indurain's only match. Assisted by a beefed-up Mapei-CLAS team, Rominger should step up a notch this year, and with the course favoring him slightly, it could be a true duel. Rominger's best chance will come on day 21, the mountain time-trial two days before the Tour arrives in Paris. And at 33, the opportunity may be his last.

He's a two-time world champion and a fine climber, but some doubt whether the Italian would know an opportunity if it bit him in the chamois. Bugno, whose history of questionable strategic decisions is nearing legendary status, almost sabotaged himself in this spring's Tour of Flanders when he triumphantly thrust his arms in the air before the finish line and nearly lost. Still, early reports from Europe say Bugno and his Polti team are in robust form. He finished second three years ago and at age 30 is eminently capable of winning another podium spot--though probably one just beneath Indurain and Rominger.

If meanness counted, this veteran would be the favorite. Jaskula finished a surprising third last year, and his new Jolly-Cage team is expecting big things from its big Pole. Subplot to watch: Jaskula's well-established enmity with Rominger, which could distract the Swiss from his real task of riding for the overall victory and allow Jaskula to sneak onto the podium once more.

The quiet Colombian's surprise fourth-place finish in last year's Tour catapulted him into prominence and posed a question: Can he do better? This year, however, the spindly Mejia may be out of gas by the time he and his Motorola team reach the Alps. If he isn't, look for him to do well--the final, uphill time-trial could be his chance for glory.

ALEX ZüLLE, 10-1
Zülle is like a wind-up toy: a good climber and phenomenal time-trialist, though you never know when he's going to shut down. The 28-year-old Swiss finished second in last year's Tour of Spain but has bonked in the longer Tour, finishing 41st last year and quitting in 1992. This year, however, could be different. His team, Spain's ONCE, is saving him for France, and with Dutch stud Erik Breukink playing bodyguard, Zülle could crack the top ranks.

A nice guy, but... Hampsten was considered a Tour contender for years, and with 1988's Giro d'Italia win he seemed on the verge of delivering cycling's greatest prize. Fact is, he's a truly elegant climber with one glaring weakness: the time trial. After devoting last year to improving that shortcoming (it didn't work), the 32-year-old American is back to his climbing program--which, given this year's course, could land him in the top five. He will share command of the Motorola squad with Mejia and the rejuvenated Raúl Alcalá--and possibly a certain young Texan--until a clear team leader emerges in the standings.

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