It will take a brave man to attempt to fill the void left by the now retired Lance Armstrong. German newspapers think that that man will be T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich. Can the German take his chance now Lance has abdicated?
With Armstrong in retirement, can Ullrich ride out from the shadows?
Now Lance Armstrong has retired from competitive cycling, future Tour de France titles are there for the taking.
The void left in the wake of the Texan's retirement leaves the field open for one of the many riders who have cursed their luck to be of the same generation of racers as probably the greatest of the modern age. But who will be the rider who steps up and takes on the challenge next year and in the years to come?
If you can believe the German press than that man will be T-Mobile rider Jan Ullrich. According to glowing recommendations from the country's newspapers Ullrich, who again finished on the podium on the Champs Elysses on Sunday in the shadow of Armstrong's victory, can take advantage of the open field to claim his second Tour de France after a gap of nine years in next year's race.
Hopes were high that Ullrich could triumph this year for the first time since 1997, but the German finished more than six minutes behind in third place when Armstrong won an unprecedented seventh title in Paris on Sunday.
German press heralds the age of Jan
"Now Armstrong is leaving the course and the world of cycling is wide open for Ullrich -- from here on, it is up to him. He just has to put a bit more effort in, as Armstrong told him," said the broadsheet Die Welt newspaper.
The paper added that if it had not been for Armstrong's dominance of the world's greatest cycling race, Ullrich might have won "five or six times". He has been runner-up on five occasions.
The top-selling Bild newspaper was also optimistic about 2006. "If Jan is spared bad luck and if he takes Armstrong's advice to heart, then everything should work out," the paper said.
Armstrong advises Ullrich on weight loss
Bild was referring to the Texan champion's statement about his most consistent bridesmaid, a statement that while offered mainly as encouragement could be seen as a barbed parting shot. The Texan praised the German but added that undisciplined summers and his carrying extra weight at the start of the Tour had cost Ullrich the chance to seriously challenge.
A more disciplined summer training routine may not be the only change Ullrich may have to make to take over the mantle of Tour de France champions from his great rival. He may have to find himself a more competitive team, or at least a more supportive one. While the T-Mobile team returned to their base in Bonn, Germany to a hero's welcome, there were still mumblings that their leader had cost the team vital points during this year's tour with his often lackluster performance.
The under-current of discontent became mainstream when Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov announced that he was leaving Team T-Mobile for the Liberty Seguros team next year to pursue his goal of winning the Tour de France, adding that he could no longer ride in the shadow of Ullrich anymore.
Vinokourov quits T-Mobile in bid for glory
Jan Ullrich with Aleksander Vinokourov (right).
"My goal is clear, I want to win the Tour de France," Vinokourov, who finished fifth this year, told French sports daily L'Equipe on Tuesday. "So I chose the team with the best arguments. It's the most organized and the most experienced team. They have the best riders in the mountains and are among the best in the team time trials. It was almost a natural choice."
If Ullrich plans to jump ship as well to achieve his goal then it may leave T-Mobile more adrift in a sea on hopefuls. And for the rider himself, it may not make much difference to the outcome of future races. Even though Lance Armstrong won't be riding again, Ullrich -- in whatever team colors -- may still be haunted by his nemesis.
Lance could come back to haunt Ullrich as coach
Armstrong may be bidding farewell to his cycling career but it won't be long before he returns to the Tour de France to help boost his Discovery Channel team's bid for future success by passing on his experience and knowledge of the world's biggest race.
"He's already very involved," said team manager Johan Bruyneel. "It's remarkable to me how much he is interested in the future success of the team. He's always telling me about possible riders we could sign for the future. You're going to be seeing a lot of him next year."
And Armstrong could well be grooming a new generation of riders to thwart Ullrich for the remaining years of the German's career. The Discovery Channel team has a wealth of potential yellow jersey riders waiting to step up.
Young pretenders ready for the challenge
Paolo Savoldelli (photo) won the Tour of Italy in June while Yaroslav Popvych is a potential yellow jersey contender who won the race's white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 or under. "He did well for his debut on the Tour," said Bruyneel of the Ukrainian who won the world under-23 road race crown in 2001. "In general you have to be careful with young riders but he has been promising. He managed to stay with Lance in some of the final sections of the big climbs which is not easy."
For the first time in seven years, the Discovery Channel team will go into the Tour de France as underdogs but the jury is still out on whether Jan Ullrich will be the favorite for the race in 2006.