Six who can challenge Armstrong
– Jan Ullrich (Team Bianchi), did not race the 2002 Tour: The 29-year-old German is the only Tour winner starting besides Armstrong, who says Ullrich is the only rider that truly gives him a fright. The 1997 Tour winner endured a terrible 2002 season, undergoing two knee surgeries and serving a doping suspension after testing positive for the party drug ecstasy. Ullrich has never finished worse than second at the Tour, but left his longtime Telekom team for a fresh start at Bianchi.
– Tyler Hamilton (Team CSC), second in 2002 Giro d’Italia: The 32-year-old from Marblehead, Mass., is a solid all-rounder who can shine in both the mountains and the time trials. Hamilton helped Armstrong win his first three Tours, but left the U.S. Postal Service team at the end of the 2001 season to have a chance to ride as a team leader.
– Gilberto Simoni (Saeco), winner of 2001 and 2003 Giro d’Italia: The 31-year-old Italian has thrown down the gauntlet and is one of the few riders to openly challenge Armstrong. Simoni is a strong climber who promises to attack Armstrong in the mountains to put the Texan in difficulty. Simoni’s Achilles heel is his time-trialing abilities, with which he could lose minutes against the superior Armstrong in the race against the clock.
– Joseba Beloki (ONCE), second overall last year: The 29-year-old Spanish rider finished second last year, thanks in part to the absence of Ullrich. A solid all-rounder, Beloki has finished on the Tour podium three years in a row. He’s heavily criticized for only following Armstrong and riding conservatively to protect his position in the overall standings without taking risks.
– Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), winner of the 2002 Tour of Spain: The 28-year-old Spanish rider roared to victory in last year’s Tour of Spain, upsetting Armstrong’s key helper Roberto Heras. A strong time trialist who can stay close in the mountains, Gonzalez faded out of contention in the 2003 Giro d’Italia with poor form in the Dolomites. Gonzalez has only raced one Tour but wants to challenge for the final podium to make up for his Giro disappointment.
– Santiago Botero (Telekom), winner of two stages and fourth overall in 2002 Tour: The 30-year-old Colombian could be Armstrong’s most dangerous rival if he can avoid having a bad day. Botero beat Armstrong in the Tour’s first time trial, but later crumbled on the long steep climb to Mont Ventoux, losing 15 minutes to Armstrong and falling out of contention.
Chris Freud is the sports editor for the Vail Daily. Contact him at (970) 949-0555, ext. 614 or by e-mail at email@example.com.