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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Tour 2000: The contenders
Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong will want to lead from the front again
Click for previous winners, 1999's main men, big name challengers and the great unpredictables.

Last year's Tour began without a single winner among the field, but this time there should be three ex-champions on the startline.

American Lance Armstrong defends the title he won last year, 1998 winner Marco Pantani returns after a year in the wilderness and Jan Ullrich bids to regain the crown he took at the age of 23 in 1997.

All three are capable of winning again, while there are plenty of others who - on paper at least - have a chance of denying the trio a second victory.

Last year's runner-up Alex Zulle leads the challengers who starred at last year's Tour, while another group are bidding to improve on strong finishes in previous races.

Finally, there are the great unpredictables - the one-day specialists hopeful of converting themselves into Tour stars and French fans' favourite Richard Virenque.

This is Sport Online's 15 to watch. Not all are potential winners but each is probably capable of at least a top 10 finish if all goes to plan.

Previous winners

Lance Armstrong (US) US Postal Service
Ranked 4th in world

Lance Armstrong
Will 2000 see a repeat for Armstrong?
If Armstrong's warm-up results during June are anything to go by then last year's winner has a superb chance of repeating his success.

Previous to that his form was non-existent, but Armstrong now approaches the season with one single aim - the Tour - and anything else is a bonus.

His only scare this year was a training fall in May, but that setback appears to have been overcome and the Texan is ready to target a second yellow jersey in Paris.

Marco Pantani (Ita) Mercatone Uno
Ranked 406th

Marco Pantani
Pantani was all yellow in 1998
Italy's national cycling hero won the 1998 race dominated by police drug busts and rider protests, but sat it out last year while sulking over his own run-in with the authorities.

After a year away from competition he rode himself into form during May's Giro de Italia, and must be fancied to challenge for at least mountain glory if not an overall win.

The Italians will demand overall victory but the rest of the world will simply be pleased to see the bald pirate of world cycling return to the highest level.

Jan Ullrich (Ger) Telekom
Ranked 3rd

When the German won the 1997 Tour at the remarkably young age of 23 it was predicted that he would dominate the event in the manner of five-time winner Miguel Indurain.

Jan Ullrich
Ullrich aims to recapture form
But Ullrich has failed to repeat his Tour success, mainly due to his ability to put on weight during the winter - a key factor in his defeat by Pantani in 1998.

Last year's Tour of Spain proved that the talent was still there, now we must wait and see whether pictures of a bloated world champion returning to competition early this season will come back to haunt him.

Leading pack of 1999

Alex Zulle (Swi) Banesto
Ranked 12th

Probably the best current rider never to have won the Tour de France, and perhaps the unluckiest after countless accidents and falls.

Alex Zulle
Zulle hoping for luck this time
Despite his role in the infamous Festina drugs affair of 1998, he retains support and sympathy not least because last year an accident in the first week effectively cost him his chance of catching Armstrong.

If there is to be a new winner of the yellow jersey this year, then Zulle must be the favourite to overcome his jinx.

Fernando Escartin (Spa) Kelme
Ranked 46th

No profile of the Tour contenders would be complete without the man who completed last year's Tour podium.

But in what is the strongest field for years the Spanish climber will do well to emulate that performance let alone improve it.

His lack of time trialling ability means that overall victory is probably beyond him but he is sure to entertain in the mountains.

Laurent Dufaux (Swi) Saeco
Ranked 32nd

Like his compatriot Alex Zulle, Dufaux is a former Festina rider who moved on to pastures new after the scandal of 1998.

And like last year's runner-up, the switch paid off as Dufaux finished last year's race in fourth place, albeit almost quarter of an hour behind Armstrong's winning time.

The Saeco rider's problem is that he lacks the punch to attack the leaders in the mountains, and his time trial performances have not been spectacular enough for him to take a leap into the top three.

Angel Luis Casero (Spa) Festina
Ranked 103rd

Fifth-placed in last year's Tour while racing for Spanish team Vitalicio, Casero has transferred to Festina and will lead the rebuilt French team's effort in this year's race.

The Spanish rider is a strong climber and a competent time triallist, although has yet to prove he can lead the way in the crucial stages rather than simply follow the leaders.

Big name challengers

Laurent Jalabert (Fra) ONCE
Ranked 15th

The former world no 1 has dived down the rankings after taking a break from his normal policy of racing everywhere and winning almost everything.

Laurent Jalabert
Jalabert's keen to provide France with a home winner
His reason is simple: After boycotting his home country over the drugs scandal last year, he now wants to be the first French rider to win the Tour in 15 years.

This is despite some indifferent previous attempts, where Jalabert has failed to stay with the top men in the highest mountains.

Bobby Julich (US) Credit Agricole
Ranked 293rd

The other top American rider whose third place in 1998 was completely overshadowed by former team-mate Armstrong last year.

Julich was ruled out before the mountains, having crashed while taking too many risks in the first time trial, and his great all-American showdown with Armstrong was over before it began.

The two men have never been the best of friends, and fans can relish the battle this year as Julich arrives with the experienced Chris Boardman for support.

Abraham Olano (Spa) ONCE
Ranked 5th

Abraham Olano
Olano will be looking to make a mark
Olano is the second half of ONCE's two-pronged assault on the Tour, and like Jalabert is a former Tour of Spain winner who struggles on the steepest climbs.

The Spaniard was once burdened with the inevitable "new Indurain" tag but never developed Big Mig's bulletproof ability in the mountains.

Olano is a superb time triallist but knows that it is in the mountains where his Tour chances will be decided, a factor which explains his new slimline look for 2000.

Michael Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank
Ranked 10th

Like Julich, 1998 was great for the Dutchman who finished fourth. And like the American, it all went wrong last year.

Boogerd was a high profile victim of the same accident on a slippery causeway which harmed the chances of Zulle and Olano, and the Dutchman never recovered from the bruising he took.

The Dutch public were unforgiving at his failure and if that has reduced their expectations then the Rabobank rider may benefit in this year's race.

The great unpredictables

Michele Bartoli (Ita) Mapei
Ranked 235th

The world's richest team does not have a strong Tour challenger but they do possess one of the finest one-day riders - a man who wants to follow Armstrong to Tour glory.

After a serious accident wrecked 1999 and almost did the same to his knee, the Italian returned to form in June, winning the prestigious Italian national championship.

At worst Bartoli is a good bet for a stage win or two, while his best efforts could see him or team-mate Daniele Nardello finishing high up the general classification.

Frank Vandenbroucke (Bel) Cofidis
Ranked 30th

If the chances of any other challenger are hard to predict, then understanding the Vandenbroucke phenomenon is virtually impossible.

The most talented Belgian rider of his generation has been weighed down by two things - the expectations of his cycling-mad country and an enormous ego.

The controversial "VDB" is a specialist both in the one-day races and at making disappearing acts. Luckily for him he often returns stronger after going AWOL - and he may do so again during the Tour.

Richard Virenque (Fra) Polti
Ranked 115th

The man the French called "Le Roi", was labelled "Tricky Dicky" by the rest of the world after the 1998 Festina affair.

Richard Virenque
Virenque will receive strong home support
However he is still determined to shine on his favourite stage following a mental and physical recovery last year when he finished eighth and won a fifth King of the Mountains prize.

He may not be on the experts' lists of favourites, but the French public would still love to see him wear yellow in Paris and are sure to be out in force to support him.

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See also:

28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
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