Few teams have been as consistently strong as US Postal service this year, with podium appearances beginning in February and carrying right on through an excellent showing in the spring classics and a nearly uncontested victory in the Tour de France. Postal is looking extremely strong and cohesive. Fielding a deep team at the Vuelta, they should show mettle in Spain.
The team will be lead by 2000 Vuelta champion, Roberto Heras. Heras had a rough trip to his home tour last year after a season disrupted by controversy over his signing with US Postal and injuries that led him to a disappointing 4th place after being out-gunned by Postal's Vuelta surprise, Levi Leipheimer, who leapt over him for a spot on the podium. A frustrating ride for Heras, he told Todociclismo earlier this year that he never found his form in last year's race: "I don't know how I finished fourth," he said. This year has been different for Heras, and the little climber who had his bossman, Lance Armstrong, begging for mercy in the Pyrenees during the first mountain stage of the Tour de France looks poised to make up the difference. Heras has had great form this year, winning the Tour of Catalunya in June, and placing a respectable 9th in Paris after giving his all in service of Armstrong's Tour victory.
Heras is arguably one of the most dangerous stage racers in the world with a string of impressive finishes and stage wins in all three Grand Tours from 1997 forward, and he's in condition now. With exemplary service done in the Tour, the Vuelta becomes his primary objective. Speaking to Todociclismo, Heras vowed that he would be bringing his best game in Spain: "After winning in 2000 there is nothing else but winning again. That is what people are going to expect of me and what I expect of myself. I like this year's route. In theory there are three fewer mountain stages, but the four that they have placed will be more selective and will benefit me." Heras looks for all the world like the man to beat this year.
Heras will have some strong assistance. Postal's second in command will be the indefatigable Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera. The ultimate team player, and a man whom Armstrong said he wouldn't mind having "three more" of, Chechu will be playing second fiddle; though on another team, he's be a first chair in his own right. Now in his second year as a Postman, Chechu showed incredible class and strength in last year's Vuelta, working for all he's worth for Heras and Leipheimer and still managing a 7th place finish himself. Chechu rode all but the best of the best off Postal's wheel on the last climb of every mountain stage in France this year, and never seemed to have a bad day. A second consecutive 2nd overall finish in the Tour of Burgos earlier this month says his form is on. Rubiera will provide armchair service to the summits for Heras, and will be more than capable of coming up to scratch should his leader falter.
The supporting cast is solid as well: dependable workhorse Victor Hugo Peña continues to "live his dream" and brings his strong climbing and time trial skills to the team. Peña, who brought USPS it's first victory of the season in the Tour of Murcia this year, worked his butt off in the Tour de France, and will bring the same work ethic, and hopefully that big charming smile with him to the Vuelta. His time trial victory in stage 4, and third place overall in the Tour of Holland says he is in good shape heading into Spain.
Michael Barry, who makes his Grand Tour debút in the Vuelta next week, rode like a rockstar earlier this year in the USPRO Championships in Philadelphia, leaving it all on the road for his team. A good climber who can hang in for an all day effort, he should do well in his first Grand Tour outing (more from Barry below). Strong all-day man David Clinger won the First Union Invitational in Lancaster this year, and rode good support in the Classics; Christian Vandevelde, sidelined early with a broken arm last year, and left off the USPS Tour team this year is always strong and may have some special motivation in Spain. He, Clinger and Australian hammer Matt White will provide good support on the flats. Experienced classics and Tour de France Support man Steffen Kjaergaard and Antonio Cruz, who finished his first Grand Tour in last year's Vuelta, round out a good lookin' squad.
With master of strategy and all around cool customer Johan Bruyneel at the helm, the team will not only have the strength of it's world class roster, but the guidance of a an experienced and consummate professional.
All in all, a force to be reckoned with.
The Daily Peloton caught up with Grand Tour rookie Michael Barry today, and found him ready and eager for what lies ahead:
How long have you known that you were on the USPS Vuelta team? This will be your first grand tour: are you excited, apprehensive, or both?
I have had an idea that I might do the Vuelta for the last few months- I guess since Catalunya. I knew I was on the long team and was told to focus on being on good form for the month of Sept.
The Vuelta will be my first grand tour- an experience I am looking forward to. From everything I heard 3 week races make you a lot stronger, which will be good going into 2003. I am not apprehensive at all going into the race as I have done several two week races and have always managed to finish fairly comfortably and not too worn out. It is also extremely motivating being a member of a team that can win the overall as well as stages. The ambiance within the team is really positive and I know we'll be able to get each other through the challenges.
What will your task be there, and how will you be using your strengths to help the team?
I think my role will be similar to the one I had in Catalunya. I was able to ride on the front over the first few mountains and would then leave it to Christian and George for the final. The order of who rides on the front when will change day to day, depending on who is feeling good and who is not, but I think we will all be on the front, or in the wind a lot. We will be protecting Roberto and Chechu as much as possible so that they can arrive in the mountains as fresh as possible.
This has been an incredibly good year for Postal, and the team looks super strong heading into the Vuelta; what do you think it will take for USPS to win?
We have two of the strongest climbers going into the race. Two weeks ago in the Vuelta Burgos both Chechu and Roberto were flying. I think that when you are a member of a team that can win everybody rides beyond themselves to attain that goal. The strength of our leaders gives all of us more confidence. To win we will need to sacrifice ourselves daily for our leaders and protect them through each and every stage.
We will ride in much the same manner the team did in the Tour de France.
Who do you see as the most dangerous challengers heading into the race?
Simoni, Beloki, Sevilla, Mercado, Casagrande, Casero... it will be a challenging race. Coast will be strong as will Banesto and ONCE.
USPS for the Vuelta
221 HERAS HERNANDEZ Roberto USP ESP 28
222 RUBIERA VIGIL José Luis USP ESP 29
223 BARRY Michael USP CAN 27
224 CLINGER David USP USA 25
225 CRUZ Antonio USP USA 31
226 KJAERGAARD Steffen USP NOR 29
227 PENA GRISALES Victor Hugo USP COL 28
228 VANDEVELDE Christian USP USA 26
229 WHITE Matthew USP AUS 28