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Now in position as T-Mobile's team manager following Walter Godefroot's retirement, Olaf Ludwig is already doing his best to play down Germany's expectations of Jan Ullrich in the wake of Lance Armstrong's departure from the sport and, at the same time, build up the profile of some of his team's younger names.
Speaking on his team's website, 45-year-old Ludwig refused to be drawn into declaring Ullrich as the favourite for next year's Tour title, simply saying that "the course will always suit the strongest rider. It doesn't hurt, of course, that there will be two time trials on the menu. But that doesn't necessarily mean Ullrich will win the Tour."
Rather than nominate Ullrich as his Tour favourite, Ludwig said he thinks "Ivan Basso will be the man to beat. However, he has to handle being the Tour favourite for the first time. That's a huge pressure not everyone can cope with. Jan knows that position and can handle it - that's his advantage. There are six or seven riders who could finish on the podium. And whoever has this ability might as well win. Apart from Basso and Jan, I'm thinking of Alejandro Valverde, Alexander Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Damiano Cunego and Yaroslav Popovych."
With Ullrich nearing the conclusion of his career, possibly as soon as the end of next season, Ludwig pointed up the emergence of new German talents, notably T-Mobile's new signings Linus Gerdemann and Patrik Sinkewitz.
"The one-sided focus on Jan Ullrich is a bit problematic, when I think about the negative example of tennis and Boris Becker," said Ludwig. Cycling is more than Jan Ullrich and the Tour de France. "For example, it took Jens Voigt many years to be perceived as a character and a rider. That's a pity. What I indeed appreciate, though, is the way how many young riders like Linus or Patrik make a name for themselves these days. This gives us hope, that cycling will keep its high level even after the 'Ullrich era'. In this way, signing them was also a future-oriented decision for us."
Ludwig, though, refused to be drawn on specific goals that would be set for the young pair. "I want to give them time to grow. Linus, for example, made enormous progress in the past months and achieved a lot. However, I don't expect him to get going straight away. Instead, we plan on building him up and want him to compete at one of the grand tours in 2006. For Patrik, the Tour de France will be an option. We will announce the extended squad for the Tour in January."
Two other new riders who will be in contention for that squad are Michael Rogers and Serhiy Honchar, and Ludwig denied that they had simply been signed with the Tour's team time trial in mind - of course, it was subsequently revealed the 2006 Tour doesn't have one.
"The Tour's team time trial wasn't the reason we added Honchar and Rogers to the squad. Serhiy has proved to be an excellent tour rider in recent years at the Giro. So did Michael Rogers, who despite his young age shone at the Tour of Switzerland this year and at the 2003 Deutschland Tour. However, both are also able to do valuable work on climbs, close gaps and do pursuit work. At a team time trial, for example at the Giro, they are of course a great boost for the team, but they are important for the team on the whole."
Ludwig was also positive about the emergence of a third major German team in the shape of Milram. "I think a third sponsor further increases the attention cycling in Germany is getting in the public eye. And we all benefit from this, even though there's another opponent breathing down our neck now. But competition is good for business, as they say. Overall, I'm positive about the future. With the new ProTour series and aspiring young German riders, we're on the right track."
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