The Best Bet: JAN ULLRICH
Tour de France 2004
In 1996, when a relatively unknown 22-year-old German named Jan Ullrich finished second in the Tour de France, cycling fans practically split their spandex: Tour riders generally don't get near the podium until their late twenties. When he won the race a year later, Germany had a new national hero. Alas, the glory was short-lived. Ullrich's career since has been marred by failed drug tests, injuries, and bridesmaid jokes. After his 2002 suspensionhe tested positive for Ecstasyand almost skipping 2003 due to sponsorship issues, Ullrich roared back to life last July, finishing a mere 61 seconds behind Lance Armstrong. His momentum remains high. Now, at 30, Ullrich is in his prime.
Long Shot: IBAN MAYO
At 26, Spain's Iban Mayo may be the next in line to win consecutive Tour titlesif he can just snag that elusive first one. Last year, the Euskaltel-Euskadi team leader finished sixth overall and proved he has cojones on the steeps by winning the fearsome L'Alpe d'Huez climbing stage. He also added a Tour of the Basque Country win to his résumé. Mayo and countryman Haimar Zubeldia, who took fifth at last year's Tour, both reenlisted with Euskaltel in September, and with Zubeldia slated for a supporting role this time around, Mayo could have the ammo he needs to get to the podium.
The Hunk: IVAN BASSO
Could Ivan Basso be the rider to return the Tour de France crown to Italy? The newly minted 26-year-old CSC team leader has all the makings of a winner. Known in the old country as "the housewives' favorite" for his good looks and swank off-the-bike attire, Basso posted 11th in 2002 and attacked his way into seventh in 2003. U.S. Postal wanted him, but CSC got him. Now, with an all-star support team behind him, including resurgent American Bobby Julich, Basso has his eyes set on Armstrongand the champ knows he's coming.
Super Sub: ALEXANDRE VINOKOUROV
The return of Ullrich to T-Mobile this past winter ostensibly threw Alexandre Vinokourov, the squad's 2003 leader, into a supporting role. But the 30-year-old from Kazakhstan was cycling's best all-rounder last year, sweeping the Tour of Switzerland and ParisNice before scaring Armstrong and Ullrich with his third place in the Tour de France. Should Ullrich falter this July, "Vino" could easily go after Armstrong.
Brutus: ROBERTO HERAS
Et tu, Roberto? Following in the footsteps of Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, who was Lance Armstrong's Sherpa for three years, moves out from under the Texan's shadow this season. The 30-year-old Spaniard and two-time Vuelta a España champion transferred to the Liberty Seguros team in December. His climbing abilities are legendary: At one point while leading Tex through the mountains during last year's Tour, he had to slow down to let his captain catch up. He went on to finish the race in 34th place. This year, with his own supporting squad, he'll be gunning to take the Man down.