The Race Is On

Dispatches, July 1997
E V E N T S


The Race Is On

At the start of a less-predictable new era, a look at the crˆme of the Tour de France field
By Alan Coté


With the retirement of a certain five-time winner and the illness of America's only true contender, it's no longer possible to bluff your way through Tour de France small talk by simply mumbling platitudes about Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong. Thus, since we'd hate to see you floundering when cocktail chit-chat turns to the annual lap of France, we offer a guide to the 1997 race favorites, as well as a look at two Yanks who might just make some noise — if not now, then certainly in Tours to come.

The Rider: Bjarne Riis, Denmark
The Résumé: first, '96 Tour de France; third, '95 Tour de France; fifth, '93 Tour de France
The Prognosis: Riis's victory last year came as a surprise to most. Indeed, the 33-year-old Dane was slow to rise through the ranks and toiled for years as a domestique for stars like Eugeni Berzin and Laurent Fignon before finally becoming a team leader. Ironically, Riis still could face competition from within his own Telekom team, in the form of 23-year-old German Jan Ullrich, who rode Riis's coattails to grab second place in his Tour debut last year. Still, based on his '96 performance and solid outings this spring, Riis is the man to beat.

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The Rider: Alex Z’lle, Switzerland
The Résumé: first, '96 Tour of Spain; second, '95 Tour de France
The Prognosis: Last year's Tour epitomized Z’lle's career. He was a serious contender after winning the opening prologue but then faded to a 26th-place finish thanks to crashes and inexplicably poor fitness. When the 29-year-old does keep it together, though, he's nearly unstoppable, as witnessed by his crushing win in last year's Tour of Spain. His ONCE team was a model of strength in the Spanish race and should again provide Z’lle with the necessary backup.

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The Rider: Laurent Jalabert, France
The Résumé: fourth, '95 Tour de France; first, '95 Tour of Spain; first, '95, '96, '97 Paris-Nice
The Prognosis: Jalabert, 28, is perhaps the most versatile rider in the peloton, capable of winning both wild pack sprints and monthlong stage races. So far this year, he's displayed his usual early-season prowess, taking the eight-day Paris-Nice and the one-day FlŠche Wallone classic. In the Tour, he's hoping to finally overcome his one weakness — he tends to break down after a couple of days in the mountains.

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The Rider: Frankie Andreu, United States
The Résumé: fourth, '96 Olympic road race; second, 21st stage, '94 Tour de France, and 18th stage, '93 Tour de France
The Prognosis: Currently America's most experienced stage racer, Andreu, 30, is the consummate team player, having spent years chasing down breakaways for Motorola — a role he'll continue for his Cofidis team and perennial Tour contender Tony Rominger. But this Michigan native can also uncork a fast finish. If he lucks out and lands in the right breakaway, Andreu could find himself king for a day.

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The Rider: Richard Virenque, France
The Résumé: third, '96 Tour de France; fifth, '96 World Road Championships; fifth, '94 Tour de France
The Prognosis: Virenque climbs like a billy goat, a talent that has earned him the Tour's polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey each of the last three years. This typically vaults him into contention — only to be followed by mediocre time-trial results that cause him to slip a few places in the final standings. But this year may well be different: On a rugged course highlighted by seven particularly brutal days of climbing, the 27-year-old Frenchman could build a large enough lead to make his flatland difficulties irrelevant.

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The Rider: Tyler Hamilton, United States
The Résumé: fifth, '96 U.S. Olympic trials; first, '96 Teleflex Toer; first, '96 Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic
The Prognosis: At press time, chances looked good for Hamilton's U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team (really) to earn a wild-card berth for a coveted spot in the Tour. Good thing, because that's just where this polite, humble New Englander belongs. At age 24, he's already showing the climbing and time-trialing prowess of a top stage racer. Don't expect much of young Hamilton in this his first Tour, but know that his is a name you'll be hearing.


Watch for Outside Online's coverage of the Tour de France, starting July 5.

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