'Father' Cipo prepares for Petacchi

After five years away from the Tour, Mario Cipollini is back. But the opposition is looking faster t

After five years away from the Tour, Mario Cipollini is back. But the opposition is looking faster t
Mario Cipollini is back at the Tour de France for the first time in five years and makes no bones about the fact he has missed the race hugely. "I'm very happy to be back at La Grande Boucle, the atmosphere is unique. I won't deny that I've missed it," he told reporters. Now 37 and with 12 Tour stage wins behind him, this could be Cipollini's last appearance in this race and he recognises this is the toughest stage of all on which to be a winner - especially when the almost unbeatable Alessandro Petacchi is in the field. "The competition is much higher at the Tour than anywhere else, and I'm happy to be here at last to do battle with Petacchi," said Cipollini, who was forced to quit the Giro in the first week after a bad crash that has since compromised his Tour preparation. "But there are a lot of others to watch for besides Petacchi. Tom Boonen has been impressive, and it will be interesting to see how he fares on his Tour debut because experience counts as much as speed at this race. For that reason we shouldn't forget Erik Zabel." Cipollini sees his situation at Domina Vacanze as being similar to Zabel's at T-Mobile. "His team is based around Jan Ullrich, mine around Michele Scarponi. Our team is built mostly around young riders, and I'm a bit like their father. I'll try to guide them as best I can." The bad news for Cipollini is that Petacchi believes that he is in even better form than last year when he won four stages at the Tour. But does this mean he will attempt to become the first Italian since Franco Bitossi in 1968 to win the points title? Apparently not. "It doesn't really interest me," said the Fassa Bortolo sprinter in his pre-Tour press conference. "I want to concentrate on getting stage victories. It might surprise but my aim is the very reasonable goal of a stage win during the first week. I won't be thinking about any more than that initially. If I was thinking about the green jersey from the start I would then have to dispute the intermediate sprints, which would be a sure way of missing out on what really counts, the last sprint of the day." On thing that will work in Petacchi's favour is having almost the whole Fassa team behind him: "Only Aitor Gonzalez will be looking to the overall. I've also got one of my key allies back with me in the shape of Fabian Cancellara. Believe me, the Swiss goes like a train." Cipollini mentioned Boonen as one to watch in the sprints, and the Belgian is getting a lot of interest in his home country after notching up 13 wins this season already. He's beaten most of the world's best sprinters this year except Petacchi, but that opportunity has been denied only because they have yet to face each other this season. "I hope to win a stage and if I ride well at the prologue I can even consider taking the yellow jersey thanks to the sprint bonuses," the 23 year old told La Dernire Heure. "But I am keeping my feet on the ground. I know they can knock you down as quickly as they build you up."

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