Fitness the factor for struggling riders

Updated: July 19, 2004, 11:24 AM ET
Associated Press

To win the Tour de France you have to be at your absolute best for three weeks in July. If your timing is off, your chances of winning go up in smoke.

As the 2004 Tour de France leaves the Pyrenees mountains and heads toward the Alps, several prerace favorites are suffering.

Jan Ullrich, the man Lance Armstrong sees as his primary rival for the yellow jersey, is over six minutes behind the five-time champion. Roberto Heras, a climbing specialist and Lance's former teammate, is more than 27 minutes back. Iban Mayo won the Dauphine Libere just two weeks before the Tour de France, but now sits 45 minutes behind Armstrong.

Ullrich is still dangerous because he tends to get better in the third week of the Tour, but Heras and Mayo are completely out of contention for the yellow jersey.

Just like Lance Armstrong, these men focused nearly a year's worth of training on the goal of winning the 2004 Tour de France. Before the start of the Tour, Mayo beat Armstrong to win the Dauphine Libere with an impressive show of force. About the same time, Ullrich won the Tour of Switzerland. Based on warmup performances before the Tour, it seemed all the major contenders were in great shape.

An athlete can maintain optimal fitness for only a finite time. It may take nine or 10 months to gradually build to the point where you can perform at your best, but then you have about only four to seven weeks to take advantage of it.

Riders who hope to win the Tour de France want that performance window to begin in mid- to late June and carry them through the end of the Tour. Entering the last week of racing, it seems Armstrong timed his peak correctly, while Ullrich, Mayo, Heras and others peaked too early.

During the Dauphine Libere in June, Mayo was on top of his game. In the time trial to the summit of Mont Ventoux, he took two minutes out of Lance Armstrong. We were surprised at the amount of time Mayo gained on the climb, but Armstrong also rode the fastest time of his career on the climb. He was strong, but Mayo was stronger. After winning the Dauphine, we knew Mayo would be a real threat to Armstrong if he could maintain that form all the way through the Tour de France. It's clear now that he couldn't.

While Mayo may have reached his top form too soon, it seems Ullrich may have timed his peak too late. He struggled on the climbs during the Tour of Germany in early June and won the Tour of Switzerland by only one second over a weaker field than the one at the Dauphine. He will likely get stronger in the third week of the Tour de France, but having already lost over six minutes to Armstrong, it's going to be very difficult for him to challenge for the yellow jersey.

Ullrich's troubles may have been further complicated by his efforts to lose weight. That's been a struggle for him, but he always manages to be lean at the start of the Tour. This year, he lost nearly 10 pounds between the end of May and the start of the Tour de France. Such a rapid weight loss can seriously hurt an athlete's performance at this level. And though he is lean now, the process of getting there may have robbed him of the power he needs to contend.

Roberto Heras quietly prepared for the Tour de France, but it seems he never reached the fitness he needed to be a factor. As a U.S. Postal rider in 2002, he led Lance Armstrong up the climb to La Mongie so fast his team captain had to ask him to slow down. Now the leader of the Liberty Seguros team, Heras lost nearly three minutes to Armstrong on the same climb this year.

As for Armstrong, he peaked at just the right time. He performed well in the Dauphine Libere, but used the race as preparation for the Tour. The stress of doing that race provided the final stimulus he needed to reach the Tour at full power.

Ivan Basso of the CSC team, Andreas Kloden of T-Mobile, Tyler Hamilton of Phonak, and Francisco Mancebo of Illes Baleares seem to have hit peak form at the right time as well. Unfortunately, back pain from a crash in the sixth stage forced Hamilton to abandon the race in the 13th, but the others now appear to be the main contenders to win the 2004 Tour de France.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE