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Assuming no late misfortune in this weekend's national championship races, T-Mobile are set to field a significantly stronger team for this year's Tour de France than they did last year, when Andreas Kloeden finished second and Jan Ullrich fourth. The key difference is the presence of Lige-Bastogne-Lige winner Alexandre Vinokourov, third in 2003 but missing last season because of injury, who will add some punch and unpredictability to Ullrich and Kloeden's more conservative styles.
This imposing trio of leaders are backed by six riders who won't be distracted by a simultaneous attempt on the green jersey. Six-time points winner Erik Zabel has not been selected. Instead, the support riders comprise Italians Giuseppe Guerini and Danielle Nardello, Germans Matthias Kessler, Stephan Schreck and Tobias Steinhauser and Spanish climber Oscar Sevilla.
T-Mobile sports director Mario Kummer is confident that his team will ride a "good and successful Tour" as it did in 2004. "We'll be at the starting line in France with a strong, motivated team in which everyone contributes their strengths," said Kummer, who considers the Pyrenees and the challenging time trial in the second-to-last stage in St Etienne to be the crunch points in this year's race.
However, Kummer rates Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel team as the favourites: "Lance will enter the race with a team tailored to him and take control of the field." For this reason, Kummer believes that "it won't be any easier for the other teams. Armstrong will again be particularly motivated. Lately, his form has been improving sharply. He'll be the one to beat for a Tour victory again this year."
Each of the T-Mobile nine is highly motivated to end that run:
Giuseppe Guerini (35): "I have 18 grand tour starts under my belt already and still must say that the enthusiasm grows bigger and bigger each time. I want to show once more at this Tour de France what I am capable of."
Matthias Kessler (26): "My preparations this year have been a little different than usual: in May I rode the Giro d'Italia and in June I spent time in active recovery. My form is good and I am raring to go!"
Andreas Klden (30): "After a low-key spring, I am feeling very optimistic now. My form curve is on the up: right now I am at 90 to 95 percent of my performance capability. I still have 10 days to build up to top form. I will be using that time to train and fine-tune my form."
Daniele Nardello (32): "I am going well. I was struggling with back problems after the Tour of Qatar and again during the Giro d'Italia, but I am over that now. I battled my way back to fitness at the Tour of Switzerland. I am in good shape. Now it is my job to support the team effort as much as possible."
Stephan Schreck (26): "As a Tour rookie, I am really looking forward to it. But I expect that the nerves will eventually kick in next week when we travel over to France. My job is to support the team on the flat stages: close gaps, get into breaks, shelter the captain from the wind."
Oscar Sevilla (28): "I am looking forward to the Tour and will of course be giving it everything to support the team effort. It is a great honour to be riding alongside Jan Ullrich and Alexander Vinokourov."
Tobias Steinhauser (33): "I am fit again after a cold last week. Abandoning the Tour of Switzerland owed more to precautionary measures than anything else. I didn't want to risk a more serious cold so soon before the Tour. We have already scouted the Pyrenean stages. They were tough going. Fortunately all the teams have to tackle the same climbs."
Jan Ullrich (31): "I had a solid Tour build-up and now I am good to go. This year the team is geared up for a full-on GC assault, that's why the line-up is a bit different this time. I want to compete once more against Lance Armstong and take the yellow jersey to Paris."
Alexandre Vinokourov (31): "The whole team is geared up for one goal: winning the Tour de France. I won't be there to ride my own race, but to ride for the team. When team tactics allow it, then I will also take my chances to go for a stage win. I am in good shape and my form is as good as it was in 2003."
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