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June 28 - The Weekly Rap

We're now on the eve of the start of the 2006 Tour de France.  There's a fresh feeling this year as this is the first race without Lance Armstrong ever since his lock on the event began in 1999.  Someone new is going to win Le Tour this year, that is unless Jan Ullrich can claim his second title.  The T-Mobile captain won it back in 1997 and amazingly has never finished lower than 4th.  But CSC's Ivan Basso is attempting to do something special and rare this year by winning the Giro de Italia and the Tour de France in the same season.  It hasn't been done since the late great Marco Pantani did it in 1998.  Despite all the criticism, Ullrich showed the world at the Tour de Suisse that he is coming into form at the right time.  He expects to enter Le Tour this Saturday at about 95%, better than he has in many years, and expects to hit his peak by the time the race reaches the mountains during the second week of the Tour.  In addition to the opening prologue time trial, this year's race has two looooonnnnnggggg time trials that will give Ullrich a leg up on the competition as he has always been a time trialing machine.  The past couple years, only Basso was able to climb with Armstrong.  He's progressed and has gotten stronger each year and is still a few years away from his peak, whereas this is perhaps the last chance for Ullrich to win the race that has eluded him during Armstrong's dominating reign.  Basso clearly rode like an "extraterrestrial" at the Giro last month when he demolished the pretenders in the mountains en route to winning by the largest margin since 1965.  But expending that kind of energy a month before Le Tour comes at a price.  Can Basso recover and retain that form?  If so, he'll be unbeatable.

There are a handful of other legitimate heirs to the throne, including three Americans who launched their seasons impressively back in February at the first Amgen Tour of California.  Over the past few years, we've watched George Hincapie become not only one of the best one-day Classic's riders in the world, but he's developed into a climber.  Yes, I said it, George.  You're a climber now.  You won the queen stage at Le Tour last year and now you're ready to be the new leader of the Discovery Channel team.  Hincapie has also been working diligently on his time-trialing, which will certainly boost his chances at landing on the podium in Paris.  Discovery Channel hasn't stated that Hincapie will be the leader and often mentions Paolo Savoldelli, Yaroslov Popovych, and Jose Azevedo as possible team leaders in addition to Hincapie, but come on…George has earned the role.  Equipped with an incredibly strong team and perhaps the best director in the game (Johan Bruyneel), even Armstrong predicts that Hincapie may do something very special in July. 

Santa Rosa, California's sensation, Levi Leipheimer of Team Gerolsteiner, is also flourishing at the perfect time.  Leipheimer won the Dauphine Libre, a mini-Tour de France a few weeks ago, which instantly enhanced his claim of being a legitimate contender.  Amgen Tour of California winner Floyd Landis didn't have a great Dauphine, but he did display his power by taking 2nd in that race's time trial.  Landis, who can time trial and climb with the best, will have the full support of Phonak.  Was his struggling in the Dauphine mountains just a bluff and an effort to conserve energy?  We'll know soon enough.             

Other Californians to watch are Dave Zabriskie (CSC), a time trial specialist who has a good shot at being the first to wear the yellow leader's jersey this year if he can win the opening prologue as he did last year; and Chris Horner and Fred Rodriguez, both of Davitamon-Lotto.  Horner will be counted on to support his team's GC leader Cadel Evans while Rodriguez will be the lead-out man for the sport's feistiest sprinter, Robbie McEwen. 

Other key contenders to watch in the GC battle are the exciting Pro Tour leader Alejandro Valverde and the always aggressive Alexandre Vinokourov.

In two other key Tour de France competitions, look for a fierce battle for the green Sprinter's jersey between world champion Tom Boonen and McEwen.  Don't discount last year's winner Thor Hushovd, who survived the mountains last year better than the other sprinters.  Of the skinny boys who love to climb, the skinniest is Michael "Chicken" Rasmussen, who took home the polka dot jersey in the King of the Mountain competition.  A resurgent Iban Mayo will also be a threat as will Danilo Di Luca, who is looking to redeem himself after a disappointing Giro. 

Sorry, but The Weekly Rap thinks that other stars like Gilberto Simoni, Damiano Cunego, Erik Zabel, Christophe Moreau and Francisco Mancebo will be left hoping to take home a stage win.  We must admit that it's a shame the thrilling team time trial won't be happening this year.  Hopefully Tour organizers will bring it back next year. 

On the domestic scene, Tony Cruz of Toyota-United claimed the overall at the Tour de Nez last weekend near Reno, Nevada by winning the omnium-format stage race without winning a single stage.  Unfortunately the win came on the last day when then race leader Karl Menzies of HealthNet had an untimely flat during the last lap that sent him bodysurfing across the pavement, taking down Jelly Belly's Alex Candelario, who was sitting in third overall at the time.  Props to The Weekly Rap friend Curtis "Machine" Gunn of Successful Living Presented by Parkpre who scored his first NRC win as a pro by winning the final stage after a long two-man break and a fierce solo attack that he held to the line.  

At the Saturn Rochester Twilight Criterium, Navigator's Hilton Clarke cinched the win over Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada's Dan Schmatz in an evening rendezvous in upstate New York.  Up next on the NRC calendar is the challenging Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic stage race in Massachusetts June 29th thru July 3rd and the USA Cycling National Championships starting July 5th in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania.      

The Cool Down
How hard did the Tour de France cyclists training this week?  Probably easier than you.  Preparing for a three-week stage race takes months and months of planning and training.  Lance revolutionized cycling by making the race his singular focus, beginning his training in November for the July fireworks.  The racers competing have thousands and thousands of training and racing miles in their legs by this time of the season.  There's nothing they can do this week to change their fitness for the week other than rest.  Spinning the legs on short and easy rides will get them ready for Saturday's start.

Just how good are the pros that compete in the Amgen Tour of California?  Last Sunday, The Weekly Rap watched in awe as Toyota-United speed demon Ivan Dominguez won a local race in Los Angeles against a field comprised of pros and elite amateurs.  Shouldn't a pro win a local race?  Yes, but Dominguez LAPPED the field on a challenging 1.4-mile circuit that had a 7% grade hill on it.  Talk about impressive…