Originally created 07/05/97

Tour de France begins with battle between teammates



ROUEN, France (AP) - The Tour de France begins Saturday with defending champion Bjarne Riis facing a potential challenge from his own Telekom teammate, Jan Ullrich.

The Dane and the German finished 1-2 last year.

Riis is the team leader, and his teammates - including Ullrich - are expected to work for him with the overall victory important.

"Ullrich is not an opponant," Riis said. "He is a teammate. We will ride together and try to win."

Ullrich downplays his chance to win the world's most prestigous cycling race.

"My role will not change this year," he said. "It's clear this is nothing between us even if others want to try to oppose us.

"The only problem is we put the bar very high in 1996 ... It will be tough to do it again."

But Ullrich has his sights set on the top eventually.

"When you finish second in the Tour de France one time, you are capable to climb one day to the top spot on the podium," he said.

The race begins with a short time trial around Rouen, the hometown of five-time winner, the late Jacques Anquetil. Anquetil won his first tour 40 years ago.

Another five-time winner, Miguel Indurain, is not competing this year afer winning from 1991-95 before faltering last year.

Indurain replaced Greg LeMond as the Tour's top rider after LeMond won for the third time in 1990. LeMond has been out of the sport for three years after being diagnosed with a muscular disorder.

Indurain retired Jan. 2, saying he had dedicated enough time to professional cycling.

That left this year's Tour a wide-open race, despite the presence of Riis.

A big challenge for the eventual champion could come from Abraham Olano from Spain, who was billed as Indurain's successor. Indurain thought so highly of Olano that Indurain worked to protect Olano's lead at the 1995 World Championships.

The French have their hopes on Laurent Jalabert, ranked No. 1 on the basis of victories and high placings - even in smaller races - and Richard Virenque, the top climber of last year's Tour and third overall.

Others top contenders include Yevgeny Berzin of Russia, who beat Indurain at the Tour of Italy one year; Ivan Gotti of Italy, this year's Tour of Italy winner, and Peter Luttenberger of Austria, last year's surprise fifth-place finisher.

The U.S. Postal Service, the only American team on the Tour, has some top riders in Vyacheslav Yekimov of Russia, Jean-Cyril Robin of France and George Hincapie of the United States.

Chris Boardman of Britain is a speed specialist who specializes in time trials.

The opening time trial is about 4.5 miles around Rouen. The first stage is 119 miles. The second stage begins on the northern coast at St. Valery-en-Caux and sends the riders south. They'll hit the Pyrenees by Bastille Day, July 14.

After the Pyrenees and a rest day, the second part begins with a time trial at St. Etienne July 18. Then it's off to the Alps and a quick trip through Switzerland.

A few more stages over eastern France and the riders head to Disneyland Paris, where there's a 39.1-mile time trial on the next-to-last day.

When the cyclists cross the finish line on the Champs Elysees in Paris, they will have completed 21 stages and about 2,455 mles.