Clash of Tour titans in 2006?

Will he? Won't he? And if he doesn't what does that mean for the Tour in 2005? And could it mean a b

Will he? Won’t he? And if he doesn’t what does that mean for the Tour in 2005? And could it mean a b

PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE This past week, as doubt grew over the probability of Lance Armstrong’s presence at the starting line of next year’s Tour de France, race boss Jean-Marie Leblanc grabbed the reins and extolled the virtues of a Tour ‘sans Lance’, writes Kirsten Begg. A 2005 race without the presence of the Texan would, according to Leblanc, set up a humdinger of a race in 2006, when it is presumed that Armstrong will return for one more go, and the battle for the yellow jersey between the new champ and the old would take on David v Goliath proportions. It is a fantastic and likeable idea. The cycling world gets to celebrate a new star, Lance gets to ride whatever he likes for a year while his team adapts to a new line-up and the needs of a new, more internationally-driven title sponsor, and the Tour gets to herald a new champion (preferably French, if Leblanc has anything to do with it). The names of potential Tour-winning candidates are already being bandied about starting with the new guard of cycling, Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso, although it’s likely that longer established names such as Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloeden and just about anyone who can throw their leg over a bike would all be giving it a go for a chance to wear yellow. What most prognosticators are overlooking, though, is the intriguing possibility that the 2006 race could be a Discovery Channel head-to-head. Looking at US Postal’s recent performances at the Tour, it is clear they have been the powerhouse team. They have controlled in the mountains and dominated the time trials. Now carrying the Discovery Channel’s brand they have an international roster that includes Paolo Savoldelli and, more impressively, Yaroslaw Popovych, who may well both compete to keep the maillot jaune in the Armstrong camp. And then, of course, there is the quiet man ‘Ace’ – Jos Azevedo, whose fifth place this past year while also playing the role of support rider and general bag carrier must surely give him first claim to the role of Discovery team leader in mooted Armstrong’s absence. Azevedo’s chances of challenging for the yellow jersey have even been backed up by his team boss, Johan Bruyneel, who said last week that any rider who finishes fifth could consider winning the Tour. But a successful ride by the Portuguese could leave Bruyneel with the very awkward problem of deciding who would lead the Discovery stable of thoroughbreds should Armstrong choose to return to the Tour in 2006. It’s a quandary any team manager would be glad to have, and it would be hard to believe Armstrong would be content with a supporting role if, as he says, he comes back for “one more”.