by Robert Ferringo - 06/30/2005
Over the last six years, Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France has been the surest bet in sports. Armstrong has dominated the 180-plus rider field for more than half a decade, winning a record six straight titles and elevating himself to near mythical stature in the process. The 2005 Tour de France begins Saturday, July 2 and runs until Sunday, July 24, and Armstrong has already announced that this will be his farewell to the event. This leaves us with one question: will Lance write the storybook ending to his career, riding off into the Texas sunset with a seventh title, or will he be usurped, passing the torch to another rider to complete the cycle?
We all know Lance's story, so I won't waste your time rehashing his bouts with a life-threatening form of cancer and his courtship of Sheryl Crow. We know he's a machine, and his efforts at the Tour de Lance have been nearly super-human. Therefore, you would have to be a fool to bet against Armstrong. He's the heavy favorite, and if he was able to claim the yellow jersey last year when he was at his most vulnerable - enduring a slow start and a nearly devastating crash - he should be able to take the title again this year.
Well, it's not that easy. And as any seasoned gambler knows, anything that seems too good to be true usually is. This year Armstrong is not a sure thing for Tour de France betting.
Armstrong is 33-years old, and has not been that impressive leading up to the race. In fact, this is the first time that Lance hasn't won any races entering the Tour de France. He had a sub-par showing at the Paris-Nice race in March, and was fifth in the Tour de Georgia in April. He also finished a disappointing fourth in the famed Mount Ventoux climb at the Dauphine Libere on June 9.
However, Armstrong has the benefit of running with a Discovery Channel team that is simply the most efficient and powerful in the world. His crew is made up of eight world-class riders who understand that their glory lies in paving the way for The Man. Six of the eight riders from last year's team are back, and they have added Giro d'Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli and Tour of Catalonia champ Yaroslav Popovych. However they will be without Armstrong's most experienced mate, injured Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov.
There is nothing blatantly wrong with Armstrong (listed at -110 at most shops that offer Tour de France betting odds) as he approaches his final race (though he did suffer some bumps and bruises resulting from a crash while training last week). However, he will face as stiff a set of competitors this year as he ever has. Jan Ulrich, the Coyote to Armstrong's Road Runner, and his teammates with T-Mobile are headed into the world's premier cycling event with only one goal - beat Lance. They have mountain specialists, domestics, and all-arounders, and have perhaps the most top-to-bottom talent of any competing club.
23-year-old Damiano Cunego, and Italian rider who was expected to compete for the crown, was diagnosed with mononucleosis on June 8 and won't race. Here's a look at five riders that will be taking part in the 92nd running of the Tour de France, which will run from July 2-24. I believe that these five will offer the most resistance for Armstrong.
Some Possible Alternatives To Armstrong for Tour de France betting:
Jan Ulrich (+275) - Imagine what the careers of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone would have been like if there had never been a Michael Jordan. That's a bit what it's like for Ulrich, who did win the event in 1997 but would probably have three or four yellow jerseys by now if not for Armstrong. Ulrich has an exceptional team behind him but some opposing riders have questioned whether he is in top form. However, he knows that this is his last chance for revenge against Lance, and you can never underestimate what type of motivation that can be for the German.
Ivan Basso (+600) - Basso is a tough bet at this spot. The 27-year old finished third in the 2004 Tour, and is still running with the CSC team out of Denmark. Basso has expressed his intent to "attack" Armstrong and challenge him in the mountains, but he has said himself that Lance is "unbeatable". That may be just playing possum, but I don't know if that's the type of attitude I'm laying my money on.
Alexandre Vinoukarov (+800) - This guy is the wild card. He blew up in 2003, when Ulrich was riding for Bianchi, but crashed in the Tour of Switzerland last year and didn't race. He won the Mount Ventoux climb last month, and placed third in France in 2003. He has done a lot of altitude training in the last 14 months, but he's admitted that his goal is to put his own ambitions aside and assist Jan in his quest for the top of the podium. But if Ulrich falters, Vinoukarov hopes to be close enough to make a move.
Andreas Kloden (+2000) - This is the final member of the T-Mobile triumvirate. The skill of this three-man constellation calls to question exactly how the hierarchy will be structured. Everyone insists it will be Ulrich, the team's captain and admittedly most accomplished rider. However, Kloden finished second last year and though he hasn't had a very notable 2005, he is still a serious threat. It's hard to imagine riders such as Vinoukarov and Kloden setting their own aspirations aside for Ulrich, but that's what they claim going into the race.
Iban Mayo (+2500) - This guy fills the role of the sleeper. Running for the Euskaltel-Euskadi team out of Spain, Mayo is a wild card. He was having an exceptional pre-Tour run last year, tearing up Lance at the Dauphine Libere. However, he flopped in the main event, crashing in the third stage before coming down with mononucleosis. He has been training alone this year, without a power meter or heart rate monitor, and rumor has it he's ready to roll.
It's easy to take for granted how dominant Armstrong has been. He has been automatic for these six years, and it is hard to think that he would leave cycling in any way other than with the yellow jersey. However, such reckless faith denigrates what he has accomplished over that stretch. There is a tremendous amount of luck and will that is involved in any such streak. He run has been that amazing exactly because the race is so grueling and difficult. Rome fell, streaks end and dreams die. How will Lance ride off into the sunset?