Vinokourov must fight through pain, mental roadblocks

Updated: July 17, 2007, 5:11 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

If you're wondering where I've been -- don't worry, I am still on my bike.

Although I am disappointed that I am not racing in the Tour de France, it was definitely a justified decision for Team CSC not to include me on the final Tour roster. I made a lot of sacrifices in training for the Tour -- time away from family, altitude training, the works.

But I didn't feel very good before the Dauphiné Libéré. When I got there, I had no power in my legs and developed a stomach problem, which eventually forced me to drop out of the race. After that, I started to feel better. I went to the Eindhoven Team Time Trial, and we won that for the second straight year. I felt that competitive edge and thought to myself, "Maybe I am hitting form at the right time."

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Who will win?: Michael Rasmussen is in the overall lead now, but we've seen what pressure in the time trials has done to him in the past. I think he'll have to have another massive stage, like he did a few days ago, and gain 3-4 more minutes.

But, at this point, I have a few sleeper contenders for the overall win.

Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Levi Leipheimer all have a chance to win it all because they are all strong in time trials right now. All three riders are close to each other in climbs; but again, the Tour will be decided in those two time trials. Stage 13 is going to be very important and will tell us a lot.

-- Bobby Julich

Still, Team CSC is so strong, we could have fielded two teams at the Tour de France. But I realize that it would not be fair to the other CSC riders to put me on the team just because of my name and experience. If the chance comes along again, I'll be ready for it, but I can't expect preferential treatment.

The hardest day was the Wednesday before the start of the Tour. The team left for London, and I was still training like I was going to be called up at the last minute. It didn't happen, and I've come to grips with it.

I am at Team CSC's training camp in Luxembourg -- we're one of the few clubs that has a training camp during the Tour. It's good because it ensures the rest of us are still doing the right sort of training.

Since I am not in the Tour, it's now a question of making sure I am planning for the rest of the year and not just pulling up on the hand brake and calling it a season. With the 2008 Beijing Games as a long-term goal, I am still training hard. I'll be competing in the Sachsen-Tour International event in Germany during the Tour, but that doesn't mean I am not watching the chase for the maillot jaune.

What about Vino?
After Tuesday's Stage 9, Alexandre Vinokourov trails leader Michael Rasmussen by 8:05 overall and sits in 21st place. Is he done in France? I am not sure.

Outside of my teammate Jens Voigt, Vino is the hardest guy I know. I know the sacrifices he's made this year, and they were all for the Tour. He made the Tour his main priority. He recently told me it's this year or never for him at the Tour. He's 33, not 26.

Right now, he's suffering. Vino had every excuse to drop out after a crash (at 70 kph) a few days ago that left him with stitches in his knees and road rash all over his body. Between the extra energy it will take for him to recover and the pressure of losing yet more time on the overall classification, Vino's chances are dwindling. His injuries are painful, but it's the mental factor that's a much bigger part of his recovery. There is a bigger physiological blow when you lose more and more time over three stages, especially when you're putting your eggs in one basket for the Tour. It is weighing on Vino, and it shows in his body language.

Still, he never says die. Just when you think he's done, he comes back with fight in his legs. The good thing for Vino (or the bad thing, depending on how you look at it) is the hardest stages are yet to come.

If he can recover over these upcoming transitional stages and has a good time trial, he can get some confidence back, hold his head up high and attack on the road. If he can take back three minutes on Rasmussen, he can be back in the hunt. It's tough to say how his body and mind will recover, but I am wishing him the best. I hope he comes back and shows us his spirit.

It's yet another example of how the Tour is a brutal animal. It can chew you up and spit you out, or it can make you a hero.

Levi's chances
I see that Levi Leipheimer has been very quiet so far in the Tour, but he's also a different rider from last year. He's stronger in time trials (he won the Tour of California thanks to strong time trials), and, right now, he might not seem as strong in the mountains because of it. He's also starting the Tour at a lower level -- he's still on an upcurve in form.

Levi can expend less energy now and more than make up for his overall time in the two remaining individual time trials. And I believe the Tour will be decided over those two trials. Levi hasn't lost the Tour yet; other riders have. He's still in it. If he can take the first of the two time trials well, then start to attack the other contenders in the Pyrenees, he can make the final difference in the second time trial.

It helps that not all the pressure is on him. When you have all the pressure on you, it's a different, less enjoyable race. He can feed off the success of his Discovery team, which will ride well in the mountains.

Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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