Tour de France: Ullrich plots mountain ambush to regain title

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Last year Lance Armstrong might have said that he did not see it coming when Jan Ullrich had him on the ropes during the Tour de France, but this year he has no excuse.

Last year Lance Armstrong might have said that he did not see it coming when Jan Ullrich had him on the ropes during the Tour de France, but this year he has no excuse.

Rather than deliver the usual excuses of poor form that most riders prefer as a means of keeping the pressure off, yesterday Ullrich used the press conference that revealed his T-Mobile squad's Tour line-up to deliver the message that he is "convinced" he can beat Armstrong. "I know his weaknesses and I plan to exploit them," the 30-year-old German said. "I will take time from him wherever I can."

His personal manager, Rudy Pevenage, added: "Jan is preparing to attack Lance in the mountains, on the hardest climbs." Stirring stuff, though perhaps foolhardy considering that Armstrong has won five Tours in a row, with Ullrich second three times behind him.

That said, last year the American's over-confidence and a couple of tactical errors - such as not drinking enough water before a time trial run in 40ºC-plus temperatures - allowed Ullrich to come within 61 seconds of defeating him, the closest margin ever for the Texan.

That 2003 Tour is perhaps the major reason why Ullrich has allowed himself to be the only contender in this year's Tour line-up to state categorically that he can beat Armstrong.

There are good reasons why Ullrich is so happy to bait Armstrong - particularly his first win in his last dress rehearsal race for the Tour this year, the Tour of Switzerland. It is ranked the fourth toughest stage race, and Ullrich believes his "victory there was exactly what my morale needed".

Fabian Jeker, the runner-up in Switzerland, said of Ullrich: "He's a total animal. He's been going up the climbs using the big ring [the gear usually used for flat stages by riders] and when that happens, there's nothing you can do."

Even more encouraging for Ullrich, at the same time he was winning in Switzerland, Armstrong was losing his final pre-Tour race, the Dauphiné Libéré. The American was more than two minutes off the pace in the key mountain stage up Mont Ventoux and finished fourth overall, far and away his worst performance in a June race since he started winning the Tour in 1999.

But it is the memories of 2003, together with Switzerland, that make Ullrich sound so convincing. That year the German somehow managed to put behind him factors that would have sunk a lesser rider. His first 2003 team, Coast, went bankrupt in May, six weeks before the Tour, and his race programme had to be crammed into two months because of a suspension for recreational amphetamine use, but Ullrich still gave Armstrong his toughest ride ever to Paris.

The American won, but whereas in previous years he always won the last time trial merely to rub in the point that he was the rightful wearer of the yellow jersey, last year, if he had not gone all out against the clock, he would have risked being overtaken by Ullrich.

The German is now the only Tour winner left in the peloton barring the Texan, and at 30 is two years younger than Armstrong - who admits, Ullrich is "the only rider I really fear". The loss of Alexandre Vinokourov, third in last year's Tour, because of a crash in Switzerland, is a severe blow to T-Mobile's Tour aspirations. But it also means the squad will be more willing to concentrate exclusively on Ullrich.

The armchair theorists point out that if Ullrich can get so close to beating Armstrong with his chaotic build-up to the Tour in 2003, then T-Mobile will radically improve his chances.

Given that he has received consistent financial and technical support this season, and that T-Mobile was the same team - then with Deutsche Telekom sponsorship - that took him to victory in 1997, he can only get better. Which can only mean one thing - yellow in Paris.