The Man Comes Around
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I hate to tell you, “I told you so,” but it came as little surprise that Jan Ullrich found his legs during the rest day and had the power and motivation to attack Lance Armstrong during Stage 15.
Besides Armstrong, Ullrich is the only other man in the 2004 Tour de France who has ever won the race. He has always been an incredible talent, and when he is on form he can produce an astonishing amount of power. History has shown he tends to get stronger in the final week of the Tour de France, a fact that appears to be true once again this year.
Ullrich’s attack was a credible one, but it did not worry Armstrong or the U.S. Postal Service team. Coming some 60 kilometers from the finish, the team knew it had the power to reel him back in before the finish. Armstrong actually benefited from having Ullrich up the road because it reduced Ivan Basso’s opportunities to attack.
While Armstrong was nearly seven minutes ahead of Ullrich in the overall classification, the German posed more of a threat to Basso’s position in second place. Having only a five-minute lead over Ullrich, the CSC leader couldn’t afford to let a resurgent Ullrich gain time. It was in his best interest to cooperate with the chase and reel Ullrich back into the group.
Jan Ullrich’s tactical decisions today effectively neutralized Ivan Basso, and that played into Armstrong’s advantage. With two individual time trials in the next five stages, and considering the predominantly ceremonial nature of the final stage into Paris, Basso is quickly running out of room to gain time on Armstrong. The two men are likely to finish very close to one another in the uphill time trial tomorrow, and I believe Armstrong is more likely to gain time on Basso rather than lose it. That really only leaves Basso Stages 17 and 18 to attack Armstrong, and Stage 18 is not likely to offer many such opportunities.
Ivan Basso needs to use whatever remaining opportunities he can find to gain time on Armstrong before the final individual time trial on Stage 19. While he has done a lot of work to improve his ability in time trials, the men around him in the general classification are stronger against the clock. If he can’t reduce the time gap to Armstrong before the final time trial, he is unlikely to challenge for the yellow jersey. At the same time, he may be in danger of losing second place to Andrée;as Klöden, or even Ullrich, if either man gains time on him over the next two days.
It’s important to remember that the Tour de France is not “everyone against Armstrong.” Ullrich, Kloden, and Francisco Mancebo are within striking distance of the yellow jersey, and even though it’s on Armstrong’s back, Basso is standing in their way as well. Stacking the mountain stages at the end of the Tour may provide for an exciting finale, but it also means riders may run out of road before they find the opportunity that could put them in yellow.