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The Tour de France may still be more than two months away, but the pre-event point-scoring between the likely contenders has been going on for some weeks now. Floyd Landis has three stage race wins to his credit, Ivan Basso won the Criterium International and showed well at Lige at the weekend, Damiano Cunego also went well at Lige after victory in the Tour of Trentino, Alexandre Vinokourov won the Tour of Castilla y Leon, Yaroslav Popovych was a stage-winner in Georgia, and Alejandro Valverde has two Classics to his credit.
Of course, the one major absentee from any current form guide is Jan Ullrich. The German started his season training in South Africa and Tuscany, and all was said to be going well. Then there were reports of a knee injury, his racing debut was delayed and CSC team boss Bjarne Riis chipped in with comments about Ullrich looking as much as 10 kilos out of shape when their paths crossed recently in Tuscany.
After the rumour and gossip, Ullrich will finally be revealing himself this season as the Tour of Romandy gets under way in Geneva this afternoon. While nothing much should be read into the results of a 3.4km time trial through Geneva's old city, Ullrich will undoubtedly be closely scrutinised, as much for his size as his performance in the TT.
In the past few days Ullrich has said that he has been able to undertake six-hour training rides again, and has introduced some intensive motorpacing to his training regime. "My knee is able to support my full body weight again now that the slight irritation has gone", said the only previous winner of the Tour de France still competing.
Ullrich will be supported at Romandy by several members of T-Mobile's likely Tour team. Serhiy Honchar, Eddy Mazzoleni, Scott Davis, Giuseppe Guerini and Oscar Sevilla are all part of that squad, and the line-up is completed by Bernhard Kohl and Linus Gerdemann. "It's important for the potential Tour riders to train to work well together in all kinds of race situations," said T-Mobile sports director Rudy Pevenage, who is "not expecting too much" of Ullrich this week.
The plan is still for the 1997 Tour winner to continue his preparation for the Tour by riding the Giro, which starts in 11 days, and Pevenage sees Romandy as a good lead-in to that challenge.
Romandy's route is, as usual, very testing. A couple of flattish days follow the prologue. The third stage to Leysin ends with a summit finish at 1318 metres, and the following day's stage climbs to the ski resort of Crans Montana at 1529 metres, before dropping back to Sion. The concluding 20-kilometre time trial in Lausanne on Sunday should give a good idea of how Ullrich is progressing.
This 11th event of the ProTour series has pulled in plenty of other big names: Bobby Julich leads Team CSC; Georg Totschnig appears for Gerolsteiner; defending Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli leads a Discovery Channel team that also includes Classics contender Leif Hoste; Rabobank field their two Dekkers and Mauricio Ardila; Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen start for Davitamon-Lotto; star-of-the-moment Valverde leads Caisse d'Epargne; Alberto Contador and Andrei Kashechkin appear for Liberty Seguros; past Romandy prologue winner Brad McGee leads FDJ; Sebastian Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler start for Bouygues; Stefano Garzelli and Dario Cioni line up for Liquigas; and Paco Mancebo and Christophe Moreau continue their progress to the Tour with Ag2r.
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