Gentlemen, spin your wheels!

Bobby Julich is a contender for an American repeat at Tour De France  Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
"It seems like a balanced and fair Tour," Lance Armstrong said about this years Tour de France after the mountainous route was unveiled.

"I don't want to single out any rivals," the reigning champ said modestly. "There's about 10 guys who could probably win. Ullrich, Pantani, Escartin, Olano ... the list is long."

The mood about the 2000 Tour de France is the most positive in years: The end is in sight for EPO, perennial stars Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich are back after missing 1999, and Armstrong looks stronger than ever. Balanced and fair what more could a Texan want?

Overall contenders

Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service)
Last years winner was a huge surprise no one thought Armstrong could return from cancer to win, not to mention set the fastest overall Tour average (40.2km/hour) and win four stages of the race. His recent strong showings in the Dauphin Libr (third) and the Classique des Alpes (third) prove he has prepared assiduously for another run at yellow.

Jan Ullrich (Telekom)
After his dominating victory in 1997, everyone thought the 22-year-old Ullrich was on his way to a record six Tour wins. Weight and health problems have slowed Ullrich each year since, although when he is in shape there is no better stage racer. The stage 21 individual time trial in Freiburg, Germany, could be his victory party.

Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno)
"The Pirate" burst back into the cycling spotlight with a brilliant climbing performance in stage 20 in this years Giro dItalia, accelerating away with ease on the brutal Col d'Izoard climb in the French Alps. The effort brought back memories of vintage Pantani, when he won the 1998 Tour. He has rested the past month and is almost a lock to win at least one mountain stage in his run at victory.

Darkhorses

Alex Zlle (Banesto)
Second overall in 1995 and 1999, the bespectacled Swiss time-trialist can climb with the best, but always seems to suffer a debilitating crash at some point. Last year the Stage 2 mass pile-up cost Zlle six minutes; without the time loss, his strategy surely would have been different and Zlle might have challenged Armstrong for the overall.

Abraham Olano (ONCE)
Hailed in Spain as the next Miguel Indurain (the great five-time Tour winner) Olano hasnt lived up to the press. Slimmed down for the early season, Olano won everything he entered and should finish high, if not on the podium if he doesnt crack (as usual) in the mountains.

Laurent Jalabert (ONCE)
One of the classiest winners of his generation, Jalabert was absent from the Tour last year due to a squabble with French race officials; the super-talented, ever-under-performing stage-racer is in the twilight of his career and would like to better his 1995 fourth-place finish.

Fernando Escartin (Kelme)
The impish Spanish climbers worst skill is the time trial, which always seems to be his downfall. He finally won a mountain stage last year, and might make the podium if he has another great climbing stage or two.

Bobby Julich (Credit Agcricole)
Third behind Pantani and Ullrich in 1998, Julich had a miserable year in 1999, crashing out of both the Tour and the Vuelta a Espana. Greg LeMond said Julich would be the next American to win the Tour but Armstrong beat him to the top rung. This year Julich is flying under the radar and could make a run at the overall.

Sprinters

Erik Zabel (Telekom)
A horrible 1999 Tour that included four second-place stage finshes but no victories should be erased early this year. Zabel is having a career season two classics wins and a runaway leader in the world cup competition, plus a shot at a record fifth-straight green jersey all add up to a breakout Tour. Arch-nemesis Mario Cipollini is out due to a training crash.

Tom Steels (Mapei)
The Belgian is most famous for his 1998 water-bottle-throwing incident in a final sprint that got him thrown out of the Tour; Steels matured to win three stages last year and will be Zabels biggest challenger for the green jersey. Hes also a good team rider known to work hard for Johan Museeuw or whoever is on form until the sprint comes and he winds up.

Jan Kiirsipu (AGR2)
Hailing from Estonia, the stocky Kiirsipu hasnt received much attention for his consistent wins, but wearing the yellow jersey for a week last year after taking an early stage win certainly helped.

George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service)
The best American classics rider the past two years, Hincapie would dearly love to add a stage win to his closet. He has the disadvantage of being on Armstrongs team, however, which means he plays second fiddle.

While I would love to wear the green jersey, the priority of the team is to win the yellow. So if I am called to work from the first stage, that is what I will do. Whatever it takes, Hincapie before the Tour start. If Zabel (helping Ullrich) can do it, why not Hincapie?

Part two: A look at the domestiques, climbers and stage winners


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