Leblanc: 'It's been a great Tour'

Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc explains why he thinks this has been a great race, and why we may have

Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc explains why he thinks this has been a great race, and why we may have
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE At the start village in Besanon, ahead of the stage 19 time trial, the director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, flanked by the race's assistant director, Christian Prudhomme, held court before the race's media. "I think it's been a great Tour, even though no one has ever really doubted the name of the winner," Leblanc said when asked how he thought this year's race compared with 2003's centenary edition. "But it's been an especially great Tour for the French, with Thomas Voeckler having held the yellow jersey. The reaction from the public to the race has been at least as warm as last year, if not more so. "It's true that we've not seen Joseba Beloki, Alexandre Vinokourov [both injured before the start of the Tour], Iban Mayo or Tyler Hamilton able to challenge Armstrong," Leblanc continued. "But we have seen Ivan Basso and Andreas Kloeden show themselves - we've seen those who might be Armstrong's successors." Leblanc's successor, Prudhomme, added: "We've also seen Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen. And Voeckler getting and holding on to the yellow jersey was particularly emotional." Clearly Voeckler's impact on this Tour should not be underestimated. "At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, the Tour de France makes champions. Why? Look at Voeckler. The Tour has magic," smiled Leblanc. "It all started in 1999 for Armstrong. And he's been good for the Tour, helping create awareness of the race in the US. He's also attracted a lot of American media over here to the race, which is a good thing. I heard that Times Square in New York even had big screens up showing the Alpe d'Huez time trial. But in the future, without Armstrong, the Tour will continue to impress the public and the media with its new stars." Asked whether Armstrong, on the eve of his record-breaking sixth Tour win, is the biggest champion the race has ever seen, Leblanc side-stepped the question somewhat. "The figures would say yes," he said. "He's a complete rider: good on the flat stages, good in the time trials, good in the mountains. He's a complete champion. And he doesn't show any weaknesses. Last year was difficult for him, but he's shown the kind of rider he is this year." This year's Tour route has come in for some criticism, particularly in terms of the length and number of transfers, but Leblanc was quick to hold his hands up: "We're limited: we have to finish in Paris, we have to go through the Pyrenees and the Alps. But yes, it's true, there were lots of stage starts in towns that weren't the stage finish the previous day. And particularly in the Pyrenees riders complained about that - and they were right. In future, we'll try to do better. "But, contrary to popular belief, we don't just take a map of France and say 'let's go there, there, there'," Leblanc continued, illustrating his point by plonking his thumb down on his imaginary map on the table in front of him. And then the question everyone was waiting for. What did he think about the previous day's drama between Filippo Simeoni and Lance Armstrong [see separate story]? Leblanc sighed, whispering in his deputy's ear: "I don't know anything about this." Obliged to answer the question, Leblanc said: "I saw the newspapers today, and I don't really know anything more than the press. It's between the two of them."

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