Strong nerves and thighs are basic equipment for fast finishers. The present master of the close encounter is the Italian Mario Cipollini. After setting a personal record of five wins in the Giro d'Italia earlier this month, the Tuscan will be out to bump up his tally of four stage wins in four Tours. His rivals will make life hard in those intimidating charges where the final 200 metres is fraught with peril as more than 100 pairs of legs and elbows thrash and clash. If the sprinters get too close, one touch can cause a pile-up. Boxing in, jersey-pulling, and cutting up, mostly illegal, can add to the perils, but skill and that extra "kick" gives Cipollini the edge. It has earned the leader's jersey in the Tour and the Giro, but the sprinter's prize is the green jersey awarded for scoring points through consistent high placings.
The mountain man
Gravity demands that a successful climber such as Richard Virenque needs to be a lightweight. Holding the red polka-dot jersey of best mountain racer as he has for the last three Tours marks him as a danger to yellow- jersey hopefuls. His ability in the Alps and the Pyrenees last year claimed third position overall, the most successful French finisher since Laurent Fignon was second in 1989. Among the mountain specialists Virenque is a heavyweight at 65kg against Italian Marco Pantani (56kg), Swiss Laurent Dufaux (58kg), and Austrian Peter Luttenberger (60kg). With mountainous stages in the final week the climbers can figure in the final top 10 positions, but any climbing specialist in the race leader's team can have only one ambition: to protect the No 1 colours from any threats.
The time trialist
The clock-beater Chris Boardman is meticulous about detail in the struggle to gain precious seconds over a rival. Anything aerodynamically suitable, from skin-tight clothing and a Star Wars-style helmet to a bike with narrow tyres and a carbon-fibre frame can make a difference. Last year Boardman invested in a pair of handlebars that cost as much as anyone would want to pay for a whole racing bike. Knowing the course and how to tackle it has to be combined with a smooth pedalling action and the peak of athletic condition to produce a 50kph-plus performance. Whether the short, sharp curtain-raiser over 8km or the gruelling 55km at St Etienne, each race against the clock needs precision preparation. One mistake, a puncture, or a fall can wipe out months of planning.
Jan Ullrich played a key role in an impressive Tour debut last year. He was the right-hand man to Bjarne Riis, and the 22-year-old German also finished second overall. A future Tour winner, said manager Walter Godefroot. Such acclaim seldom comes to the many lieutenants and other ranks in the Tour squads. Team workhorses cover a variety of jobs. The French call them domestiques (servants) because many are content to fetch and carry water bottles, food, and clothing for their captains. Some become super domestiques with specific roles within the team. Pacing their race- winning sprinter to within sight of the chequered flag, riding tactically at the head of the race to protect their leader's chances or falling back to help out if he has mechanical problems.
The team leader
No One wins the Tour de France without sacrifices from his team- mates. Their collective skills, teamwork, and workrate are the foundation for the triumph. Bjarne Riis of Denmark spent five years "below decks" before he became team captain, and the winner of the 1996 Tour. His all- round capabilities marked him as a potential victor, but first he had to serve masters such as the two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon. Last year Riis was powerful, tactically and physically, when it mattered. He fired off three attacks on one climb at Lourdes, beating the specialist climbers and Miguel Indurain at the same time. He was second in a crucial time trial, and seized the overall lead on a chaotic day in the Alps when snow and high winds caused the stage to be reduced to 46 km.