The first 150 of the 170km were routine enough. But the last 20, a wicked climb into the mountain-top finish at Plateau de Beille, was sure to be an early proving ground for the Tour contenders. The following scene has been replayed countless times in the agile mind of Bobby Julich, the man tipped this year to become only the second American to wear the yellow jersey into Paris. The final moments of the stage had been confused by a puncture to Jan Ullrich. As etiquette demanded, the leaders waited for the champion to haul his way back into the main group before launching their attacks. Twelve kilometres from the summit Marco Pantani flicked his bike to the right-hand side of the road and hurled himself up the final climb.
Ullrich, exhausted by his recovery, could not follow but Julich was feeling strong and ached to go in pursuit of the little Italian. A more experienced and aggressive rider would have done so, but Julich's calculations were confused by the fact that he had a Cofidis team-mate, Roland Meier, up the road ahead of Pantani. The American did not want to help Pantani catch Meier, possibly depriving his team of a precious stage win, nor did he have the confidence to test Ullrich at such an early stage. Instead, he waited on Ullrich's shoulder, politely leaving his final sprint until a few hundred yards from the finish. He took nine seconds from Ullrich. It could have been two minutes.
"It was all a bit much for a guy in his second Tour," Julich said in a recent interview in ProCycling magazine. "I felt completely overwhelmed by the whole experience." Julich would probably not have beaten Pantani into Paris anyway, but with a bit more aggression that afternoon he might have broken Ullrich. Julich put the mistake down to immaturity; those who would like to see the popular "Bobby J" lift the Tour title on 25 July in the Champs-Elysees wonder whether he has the killer instinct of a champion.
"That's Bobby," says his team-mate and good friend, David Millar. "Everyone has their style of riding and Bobby's is conservative. He doesn't risk it very often, he doesn't go into the red, he's very safe and secure, but he's a brilliant rider and a very smart guy."
Though as comfortable as almost all Americans on the business end of a microphone - "reach for the moon and you might touch the stars" is one of his most quoted soundbites - Julich rides as he is, quietly and without pretension. He bears a striking resemblance to Sebastian Coe and has the same clean-cut image. In one sense, he has come a long way very quickly. This is only his third Tour, only his third season as a continental professional.
In another, he is an eight-year overnight sensation. Julich was dubbed the "next Greg LeMond" in 1991 when, as an amateur, he finished fifth in the DuPont Tour, America's biggest stage race. "I had the world in my hands then," he reflects. Closing his fist around it proved less straightforward. A team went bust, leaving him without races or money and, when he did make it into the ranks of the Motorola team, Lance Armstrong was the team's undisputed leader. He could have stayed tucked safely away in the ranks of the charismatic Texan's band of acolytes; instead, he took a gamble and signed for Cofidis, the French team.
Though he lives near his fellow Texan, Armstrong, in Nice, the closeness is purely geographic. "There's always been an edge between us," Julich says. "There's no ill will, only respect on my part, but I realise I can't get on with everyone."
It is widely presumed, though denied by both, that Armstrong's third place in the Tour of Spain last autumn was a direct riposte to Julich's inspired third place in the Tour. A fight to the finish between the gentle Julich and the ebullient Armstrong could retrieve the soul of the Tour from the chemists' lab. Both are 27, eloquent and considered "clean" riders. And, if Armstrong's recovery from testicular cancer lends an emotional edge to his quest, Julich's competitive spirit has been equally forged by cycling's low life. Julich calls Armstrong the "leader of this group of Americans", but both are paid up members of the post-LeMond generation.
"When Greg won the Tour, for us it was like the guy who broke the four- minute mile," Julich says. "Anything was possible." But to add to his burden as pre-Tour favourite, in the absence of Pantani and Ullrich, Julich has to ride against many of his old friends: George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters, Kevin Livingston, all with Armstrong at US Postal, riders who graduated together under the shrewd eye of Chris Carmichael at the US Cycling Federation. Add in Fred Rodriguez and Chann McRae, who both signed for Mapei from the US-based Saturn team, and the peloton has developed a distinct American drawl. "It could be the strongest American presence ever in the Tour this year," says Julich. "Most of us have done the Tour before, now's the time for us to move through and make a bit of history of our own."
Julich's Tour strategy will be based on attack in the time trials and defence in the mountains. His personal form has not been promising, though the Tour has been his goal for the year; more worrying is the indifferent form of his team. While Armstrong's US Postal Service crew are flying, morale at Cofidis is low after a season battered by drug allegations and the suspension of their own young star, Frank Vandenbroucke. It is widely believed that the draconian new laws in France have put French teams at a disadvantage against teams not subject to the same rigorous testing. Julich would rather Pantani and Ullrich were in the field, but he is not losing sleep about it.
Last week he put the finishing touches to his preparations by reconnoitring the mountain stages, including the 21 hairpin bends and 13.8km up to L'Alpe d'Huez, where true grimpeurs like the Dutchman Michael Boogerd will be in their element. There can be no reticence on stages which define character with such clarity. "I'm ready for it," Julich says simply. "This time."Reuse content