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Attempts to unseat Armstrong

The announcement of Jan Ullrich’s team for the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday, is a telling illustration of the way Lance Armstrong has upped the stakes during his six-year domination of the race.

Alongside Ullrich as he attempts to beat Armstrong for the first time in the five Tours that the pair have ridden head-to-head is one of the strongest teams — and almost certainly the most expensive squad — ever assembled for the race, including no fewer than three possible winners as well as Ullrich.

The conclusion is simple: for the past few years, Armstrong has been so unassailable in the Tour that the only remote hope T-Mobile, or anyone else, have of beating him is by spending their way to success. Since 2003 the German team’s policy has been to have several leaders, the idea being that they will wear down Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team by sheer weight of numbers.

Their line-up has never been as strong as this year, however: the Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, who finished third in the 2003 Tour, the German Andreas Kloden, last year’s Tour runner-up, and the Spaniard Oscar Sevilla would be coveted, cosseted team leaders in other squads; instead, at this year’s Tour, they will work for Ullrich ”without a second thought” as Kloden said last week.

Asked to put a figure on the T-Mobile team’s budget, and to comment on speculation that it is the biggest professional cycling has ever seen, their media relations man, Luc Eisenga, comes over all coy. ”It could be, it couldn’t be. We have a budget which is quite high.” The figure of â,¬8-million (about R12-million) has been suggested.

As Armstrong prepares to pedal off into the sunset with the rock star Sheryl Crow on his crossbar, Ullrich and his other rivals know that the title at stake this year is perhaps the most enticing ever: beating Armstrong and ending the most successful run in Tour history is a guarantee of two-wheeled immortality. It would probably be more memorable than a seventh successive victory for the Texan cancer survivor, which would simply be business as usual, even if the business is the toughest sports event in the world. — Â

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