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Claiming to be "feeling well" and perhaps buoyed by his newly-blossomed romance with Sara Steinhauser - sister of team-mate Tobias - Jan Ullrich cut a confident, almost carefree figure. Earlier, on a typically windy, overcast day on the Vende coast, Ullrich and his eight T-Mobile team-mates had inspected the 19km time trial course which will kick off proceedings on Saturday afternoon.
"It's very fast and very different to the usual four or five kilometre prologues. The serious business is going to start straight away. More than thinking about taking the yellow jersey, I'm interested in gaining time," Ullrich commented of an almost entirely flat route that finishes on the tiny island of Nourmoutier.
His every-ready smile notwithstanding, the term "serious business" is an accurate summary of Ullrich's approach to the Tour this year, and the approach he intends to take into the race as of Saturday afternoon. To underline this, asked whether, if successful in his quest, the 31-year-old might be tempted to follow Lance Armstrong off the Tour podium and straight into retirement on July 24, Ullrich replied with a deadpan: "I am thinking no further ahead than the next three weeks.
"The fact that this is Lance's last Tour and therefore my last chance to beat him is obviously a major source of motivation for me, but then it is for everyone else, too," he later elaborated. "Lance remains the favourite but we have enough time and there will be lots of chances on the road to Paris. We just need to be smart enough to take them."
A five-time runner-up in the Tour, Ullrich claimed on Friday that his run of near-misses hasn't prompted any significant changes in his build-up to this year's race. T-Mobile's 'Kaiser' said last week that he was operating at 90 to 95 per cent of his full capacity. Some intensive climbing practice in the mountains around his Swiss home since then ought, one imagines, to have nudged Ullrich even closer towards the kind form which earned him his to-date only Tour victory in 1997.
Ullrich's T-Mobile managers also to have given their leader's chances a boost by picking a team with a clear climber's bias and leaving out veteran sprinter Erik Zabel. Ullrich acknowledged the vote of confidence last night.
"Armstrong has always said that he has the strongest team, but I can say that ours looks better than ever, too," he said. "We have prepared very well and Erik's omission has left room for another rider in the mountains. I repeat: I feel good and have had no major problems in my build-up. Will I miss Lance when he retires? I haven't really thought about it. I just hope that, whatever the result, if he organises a goodbye party at the end of the Tour, I'll be invited! We'll have some fond memories to talk about."
Despite Ullrich's bullishness, the bookmakers still consider it most likely that any parties in Paris will be in honour of a seventh Armstrong victory. Skybet is currently offering the most generous odds for an Armstrong win at "evens", whereas Ullrich is widely quoted at 7-2. Ivan Basso is a clear third-favourite at 7-1, and prices on an Alexandre Vinokourov victory range from 8-1 to 10-1.
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