By Graham Jones
and Barry Boyce

CyclingRevealed Historians

 

 

 

 

 

Tour de France Champions Living and Dead

 

CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '06

Tour de France Intro '06

“a la Walko”

 “A la Walko” (doing a Walko) is a French expression that came into use after Roger Walkowiak's surprise win of the 1956 Tour de France. The expression is typically applied to describe an upset win by an unknown competitor in a cycling race. This year, 50 years after Walkowiak's victory, the competitive environment for the Tour is perfectly poised to see a potential upset to the predictions being made by many.

For the past six years pre-Tour discussion has revolved principally around Lance Armstrong. For most of those six years the experts confidently predicted that Armstrong would not repeat for a whole host of reasons. With Armstrong now in retirement there are two common scenarios that curry most favor.

The first and most popular scenario sees a battle between Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and Ivan Basso (CSC). Ullrich is the only rider in the field to have won a TdF. This year Basso confirmed his Grand Tour credentials with a fine win at the Giro d'Italia. Both riders excel in the time trial and both can more than hold their own in the mountains. Ullrich has the edge over Basso against the watch and Basso could well give Ullrich the Armstrong treatment in the mountains. With his recent win at the Tour de Suisse it is clear that Ullrich is coming into top form. Basso on the other hand has laid low since the Giro so it is not clear how his form is or whether he has recovered well from the Giro.

The second scenario focusses on principally on Floyd Landis (Phonak), Levi Liepheimer (Gerolsteiner), Alex Vinokourov ( Astana-Würth) and George Hincapie (Discovery). While each of these riders is undoubtedly talented, they have yet to prove themselves as team leaders in a three week Grand Tour.

For both of these scenarios the deciding factor will be the team. Basso's CSC squad has emerged this season as the preeminent team. CSC, above all others, has the proven qualities to deliver their man to Paris in Yellow. T-Mobile, Phonak and Gerolsteiner have questionable team strength and cohesion to ride at the front for the best part of three weeks. Discovery on the other hand has the experience and strength in depth to control the race over the long haul. Their downfall is that although Hincapie is favored there are three or four other riders in the team that could assume the leadership role. An internal struggle to earn that right could well be their downfall.

After the long domination of Armstrong the concept of an unknown (or better said, unexpected) rider taking the race by the scruff and eventually rolling into Paris the victor is extremely attractive. This would be a true “a la Walko”. Roger Walkowiak's victory was forged in an early stage when a break that he was in secured a significant time gap on the rest of the field. Just two years ago young Thomas Voeckler achieved a similar early result just as Walkowiak had done nearly 50 years before him. Against all expectations, and with great tenacity and bravery, he held on to the Yellow Jersey for 10 days. It took considerable effort on the part of the Discovery team to pull Armstrong within striking distance of Voeckler so that he could deliver the ‘coup de grace' and reclaim his place at the head of the race.

This year everyone is correct in saying that the race is wide open. Many riders will see Tour 2006 as a rare opportunity to take cycling's most prestigious prize. Without Armstrong the dynamics on the road will be very different as the omnipresent Discovery team will no longer be controlling affairs for their master.

The first week will be very dangerous to those with pretensions of assuming Armstrong's mantle. In particular Stage 2 through the demanding Vosges Mountains and Stage 3 which traverses the eastern end of the Belgian Ardennes before finishing in Valkenburg in the Netherlands, have ‘ breakaway' written all over them. The field will need to be attentive and not allow any breaks to gain too much time. The same goes for the next three stages as the race heads across Belgium and northern France into Brittany . If an opportunist has in fact established a significant hold on the Yellow Jersey then Stage 7's 52km time trial in Rennes will test their long term capacity to remain as race leader.

So while we ponder the prospects for the Yellow Jersey it is also worth noting that the other major jerseys hold similar promises for great battles. Most people would point to Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon) as the obvious choices for the Green Points Jersey. On recent form Stuart O'Grady (CSC) has shown that he could well spoil their party. He may not be able to beat Boonen and McEwen in a shoulder-to shoulder sprint finish but he will be close. His advantage is the ability to build on that closeness by finishing well ahead of his two adversaries on the hilly and mountain stages. The same can also be said of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D'Epargne) who can deliver a killer sprint and also climb with the best.

If Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), who won the KOM Jersey last year, is on form again then he will be a hard man to beat for the Polka Dot Jersey. However he will need to control his delicate mental nature if he wants to reach the podium and not implode as he did so spectacularly in the final TT last year. In theory his main opponent should be the tiny Venezualan Jose Rujano (Quick.Step) who has shown himself to be the best climber of our era. Like Rasmussen he also showed considerable mental weakness at this year's Giro when he mysteriously disappeared from the race high up in the mountains. More mentally solid than either Rasmussen or Rujano are Phonaks Oscar Pierero and Ag2r's Christophe Moreau. Moreau is an old war horse who this season has displayed some terrific form. He would dearly love to close out his career as the Tour's KOM.

Poor Roger Walkowiak suffered unending criticism of his Tour win. The so called experts found every reason under the sun to devalue his victory. In actual fact his feat should rank as one of the great exploits of Tour history. He beat fair and square many of the greatest champions of the time; Gaul , Bahamontes, Ockers, Nencini and Geminiani. Having gained a significant advantage he rode a consistent and very smart race with the guidance of his clever team manager Ducazeaux.

It takes little imagination to see the 2006 Tour de France going “a la Walko”. Stay with CyclingRevealed and follow our regular “First Impressions” reports as the race unfolds. For like all Tours , this one too will be truly great.

Post Script: Our article above was written about one week before the Tour start. Now, on the eve of the Tour start, it looks as though the race will in fact result in a “a la Walko” scenario. This of course is for all the wrong reasons and is a direct fallout from the catastrophic and disgusting drug related revelations coming out of Spain .

It is impossible to say who is now favorite or who will make the podium. Trouble is whoever wins will be treated like Walko was after the race. For a while the complication will be the time between now and the time until riders are actually pronounced guilty in court. In fairness Basso, Ullrich and the rest have to be given the benefit of the doubt until found guilty by irrefutable evidence and as we know these processes can take a long time.

Today as I watch the World Cup on TV ( Germany vs. Argentina ). I just cannot help but wondering how many soccer players in the World Cup are also involved. Sad times.

This will be a very difficult Tour with cycling at the center of the drug scandal firestorm. As we did after the Festina Affair it can only be hoped that the sport that we love comes out cleaner, healthier.

 

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Tour de France 06 (Click to enlarge)