Ullrich seeks vindication

Can Jan Ullrich sustain the form he brought out of the Tour and defend his Olympic title? procycling

Can Jan Ullrich sustain the form he brought out of the Tour and defend his Olympic title? procycling

PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE At least, Jan Ullrich may well have been thinking as the burning sun set into the Aegean Sea once more tonight, Lance Armstrong isn’t in Athens. Four years after his Olympic victory in Sydney – a four-year spell that has been totally dominated by his American rival – the German rider, 31 this December, will see these Athens Olympics as a watershed moment in his career and, after a poor Tour de France, a chance for vindication. The T-Mobile leader seems sure to be well acclimatised; he has spent the past week training in Crete with his team-mates. “I’m extremely motivated, but this race will be something of a lottery,” he said. “But I hope that I have held on to the form that I had during the last week of the Tour.” After a disappointing Tour de France, Ullrich will defend his Olympic title over a course that according – at least to Dave Brailsford, director of the Team GB World Class Performance Plan – is harder than some might think. And over 224.4 kilometres in temperatures that will certainly climb into the high 30s, he may well be right. Armstrong won’t be here because his season is over. He was, he said as the Tour ended, desperate to get back to his kids, which only serves to prove how much recognition the Tour de France has now achieved in American eyes. Only a few years ago, Armstrong would not have dreamed of passing up the chance to win Olympic gold. For him at least, the appeal of Tour glory appears to have now surpassed the Games in importance. The Olympic peloton will effectively be split in two: those who rode the Tour and those who didn’t. Some believe that having the Tour de France in their legs -even three weeks after the finish in Paris – will be an advantage, although fresh legs might prove equally beneficial. “Ten days after the Tour ended, those who rode would still have the rhythm in their legs,” said former world champion Laurent Jalabert. “But add another 10 days and those who didn’t ride the Tour have also had time to acquire the rhythm. A lot will depend on how fresh they all are.” Ullrich’s German squad has some considerable firepower, with Tour de France runner-up Andreas Kloeden, added to Erik Zabel, Michael Rich and Jens Voigt to complete the five-man team. Italy, led by the resilient Paolo Bettini, can also look to 2004 Tour stage winner Filippo Pozzato, while the team from Spain have plenty of proven one-day talent thanks to the presence of Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Freire and world road champion Igor Astarloa. Looking down the French team, made up of the usual French favourites (Richard Virenque, Laurent Brochard, Christophe Moreau) it’s only Thomas Voeckler who really excites, as much through sentiment in the wake of his Tour heroics, as through his medal potential. But the young Frenchman would seem to lack the ruthless finisseur’s skills required on this street circuit. The USA team will probably look to George Hincapie for one-day medal-winning potential, as Tyler Hamilton makes his first high-profile appearance since quitting the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, while Australian hopes will be pinned on the in-form Stuart O’Grady, whose one-day winning streak has now lasted him through June, July and August. There are others: Robbie McEwen, Erik Dekker, Peter Van Petegem, Roger Hammond, and Yaroslav Popovych, both of whom next season will ride alongside Armstrong in the Discovery Channel team. But with cycling at the forefront of an Olympic Games that has already been tinged with controversy and set against the ancient backdrop of historic Greece, here’s hoping that the professional elite will give us a race to remember – a true one-day Classic. Men’s road race: 17 laps – 224.4km. Start time: 12.45 local time