With seven time winner Lance Armstrong now retired, the 2006
Tour is being called year one AL, that is, year one, After Lance. Who
will ascend to his throne and what does the race have in store for those
mesmerised by the peloton snaking through French countryside?

This year’s favourite is an Italian mummy’s boy in a sport
of alpha males – Ivan Basso, winner of the Giro d’Italia, and second to
Armstrong at last year’s tour. In many ways, he is the antithesis of the brash
American, but one thing they share is ambition, a cast-iron will, and physical
capacity to win the Tour.

There is only a single threat, and unlike Armstrong, he is
human and his flaws are exposed. The German Jan Ullrich is the prodigal son of
modern cycling and is touted as the most talented of his generation in terms of
physiology. But mentally he is not out to win at all costs. It seems he rides
to live, whereas Basso lives to ride.

In 1997, as a 23-year-old, Ullrich won the Tour yet has not
repeated the feat since, albeit achieving five second places. Now 32, this will
be his 21st year as a pro cyclist. Professional road cycling is most
arduous, and though past his prime, der Kaiser remains a favourite to
finish at the point end of the field.

The major difference in these two protagonists is that Basso
is a lightweight mountain climber while Ullrich is a sturdily built time-trial
expert. This year’s route is long on time-trials compared to the mountain
passes relative to past Tours, leading to speculation that race organisers
orchestrated an Eden Gardens “turning wicket” for Basso, the sentimental
favourite.

Second tier favourite and future Kazakh oligarch, Alexandre
Vinokourov, a downsized clone of Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, has had his chances
quashed by his team’s exclusion for their part in a doping affair.

The remaining position on the podium could come from
anywhere within the united nations of world cycling: Australian Cadel Evans,
affectionately known as “the lung”; Harley riding American Floyd Landis, aka
the world’s fastest Mennonite; and the Spanish wunderkind Alejandro Valverde. They’re all a chance.

With just three days to go before the peloton hits the
streets of Strasbourg for day one,
the jostling for position has well and truly already begun.

Peter Fray

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