Fitness the factor for struggling riders

To win the Tour de France you have to be at your absolute best
for three weeks in July. If your timing is off, your chances of
winning go up in smoke.

As the 2004 Tour de France leaves the Pyrenees mountains and
heads toward the Alps, several prerace favorites are suffering.

Jan Ullrich, the man Lance Armstrong sees as his primary rival
for the yellow jersey, is over six minutes behind the five-time
champion. Roberto Heras, a climbing specialist and Lance's former
teammate, is more than 27 minutes back. Iban Mayo won the
Dauphine Libere just two weeks before the Tour de France, but now
sits 45 minutes behind Armstrong.

Ullrich is still dangerous because he tends to get better in the
third week of the Tour, but Heras and Mayo are completely out of
contention for the yellow jersey.

Just like Lance Armstrong, these men focused nearly a year's
worth of training on the goal of winning the 2004 Tour de France.
Before the start of the Tour, Mayo beat Armstrong to win the
Dauphine Libere with an impressive show of force. About the same
time, Ullrich won the Tour of Switzerland. Based on warmup
performances before the Tour, it seemed all the major contenders
were in great shape.

An athlete can maintain optimal fitness for only a finite time.
It may take nine or 10 months to gradually build to the point where
you can perform at your best, but then you have about only four to
seven weeks to take advantage of it.

Riders who hope to win the Tour de France want that performance
window to begin in mid- to late June and carry them through the end
of the Tour. Entering the last week of racing, it seems Armstrong
timed his peak correctly, while Ullrich, Mayo, Heras and others
peaked too early.

During the Dauphine Libere in June, Mayo was on top of his game.
In the time trial to the summit of Mont Ventoux, he took two
minutes out of Lance Armstrong. We were surprised at the amount of
time Mayo gained on the climb, but Armstrong also rode the fastest
time of his career on the climb. He was strong, but Mayo was
stronger. After winning the Dauphine, we knew Mayo would be a real
threat to Armstrong if he could maintain that form all the way
through the Tour de France. It's clear now that he couldn't.

While Mayo may have reached his top form too soon, it seems
Ullrich may have timed his peak too late. He struggled on the
climbs during the Tour of Germany in early June and won the Tour of
Switzerland by only one second over a weaker field than the one at
the Dauphine. He will likely get stronger in the third week of the
Tour de France, but having already lost over six minutes to
Armstrong, it's going to be very difficult for him to challenge for
the yellow jersey.

Ullrich's troubles may have been further complicated by his
efforts to lose weight. That's been a struggle for him, but he
always manages to be lean at the start of the Tour. This year, he
lost nearly 10 pounds between the end of May and the start of the
Tour de France. Such a rapid weight loss can seriously hurt an
athlete's performance at this level. And though he is lean now, the
process of getting there may have robbed him of the power he needs
to contend.

Roberto Heras quietly prepared for the Tour de France, but it
seems he never reached the fitness he needed to be a factor. As a
U.S. Postal rider in 2002, he led Lance Armstrong up the climb to
La Mongie so fast his team captain had to ask him to slow down. Now
the leader of the Liberty Seguros team, Heras lost nearly three
minutes to Armstrong on the same climb this year.

As for Armstrong, he peaked at just the right time. He performed
well in the Dauphine Libere, but used the race as preparation for
the Tour. The stress of doing that race provided the final stimulus
he needed to reach the Tour at full power.

Ivan Basso of the CSC team, Andreas Kloden of T-Mobile, Tyler
Hamilton of Phonak, and Francisco Mancebo of Illes Baleares seem to
have hit peak form at the right time as well. Unfortunately, back
pain from a crash in the sixth stage forced Hamilton to abandon the
race in the 13th, but the others now appear to be the main
contenders to win the 2004 Tour de France.