Going into the Vuelta US Postal looked for all the world like the team to beat.
Roberto Heras looked stronger than ever, and is supported by experienced Grand Tour men Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera, Australian hammer Matt White, Christian Vande Velde motivated to do well in his first Grand Tour this year, Smiling workhorse Victor Hugo Pena, and Steffen Kjaergaard, and rounded out by fresh horses Antonio Cruz, Michael Barry, Dave Zabriske; all strong men capable of rising to the task. "The team looks really good on paper," Vande Velde wrote in his diary at the start of the race; but now there are only 6 men standing and all but Vande Velde and Heras have been struggling... so what happened?
The first postman to suffer an unenviable fate was Antonio Cruz, who crashed on stage 2, landing himself a baseball-size hematoma on his left quad, and some stiches without anesthetic. Cruz toughed it out and rode on, but even the toughest need some recovery time, and Cruz needed some special care in the days to come. Next to go down was Michael Barry, who crashed horribly and was run over by one of the race motos. Barry earned teammate Christian Vande Velde's respect showing "ridiculous courage" in carrying on that day, but his virgin run at a Grand Tour was over. Next to go out was Steffen Kjaergaard, who climbed off the bike on stage 14. In stage 15, on L'Angliru, Victor Hugo Pena, having a hard day, was accused of hanging on to the second US Postal support car, and both he and the car were ejected from the race. Postal's Assistant Director Sportif, Frankie Andreu, the driver of said vehicle, reports to the Daily Peloton that the "second team car was only withdrawn for one day," and adds that "Victor Hugo Pena did not hang on the car even once. He never grabbed the car and this is the problem that we couldn't explain to the commissaires." Even so, the US Postal Team heads into the stages to come only 6 men strong, and though they are fighting on bravely, things could certainly be going better for the boys in blue.
Heading into the last mountian top finish, Heras is in gold, but only 35" ahead of Kelme's tactically muddled strong time trial specialist Aitor Gonzalez, with a frustrated Oscar Sevilla only 1'08" behind, and ONCE's dangerous Joseba Beloki just under two minutes down; all of whom are potentially stronger against the clock than Heras. With the race coming down to a time trial in Madrid, it could end like it did last year in a decisive race of truth. Heras is looking strong, but with so many good men down, can the now diminished Postal Team protect his lead?
"You are right about it being a long road ahead with only six guys but not impossible," says Andreu. "The key to the race arrives on the mountain top summit, [in Covatilla] where Heras must take more time out of Gonzalez." Andreu adds that "Gonzalez is a very good time trialist so probably another minute would be needed."
Stage 18 is a crucial mountain test for the GC leaders, and by all rights, should tell the tale for the outcome of the race. There are four categorized climbs between Salamanca and Estación de Esquí La Covatilla which could well decide the fate of the GC contenders. The leaders will be watching each other like hawks and will look for advantage in the final climb, the special category Estación de Esquí La Covatilla, a 9.5 km climb that starts at the 183.5 km mark, and is the last major uphill finish and the last real chance to attack decisively before the final time trial. "It is a difficult climb," says Andreu, "Roberto will use a 39x25."
Whatever gear Postal's little climber rides, it will be a long hard day. Heras is clearly on stellar form, but the greatest danger to his leadership in the race will be isolation with a hungry pack of competitors should his team lack the strength to protect him. Speaking earlier this week in the rest day press conference, Heras expressed confidence in his teammates. "There are six of us, after three have had to quit the race," said Heras, "and we are all prepared to take the weight of the race on our shoulders."
Whose brawny shoulders will bear that weight?
One might hope that Chechu Rubiera could have something in his legs, but Rubiera has not been riding the Vuelta of his dreams. Speaking to Spanish paper El Mundo, Rubiera admits that his form is not what he would like: "I noticed it on the first mountain stage and for sure I haven't put it into overdrive. I do the best I can, but now that Roberto is race leader, we will have an extra motivation. Truthfully, the only ones on our team who've been in top form have been Heras and Vandevelde." Indeed, Christian Vande Velde has ridden a beautiful race and has done strong and selfless service for Heras in the mountains thus far. If Chechu finds some inspiration and some legs, and/or Vande Velde continues to ride as he has, Heras will have good support. Matt White, Antonio Cruz and Dave Zabriske have worked hard to stay with Heras on the flats, but the past few days have seen him in a lonely position at times, and they are less likely to carry their leader into the high mountians that will hold the key to the race. Rubiera joins the chorus on Postal adding that Heras will have no choice but to attack hard on the slopes of the Covatilla tomorrow, and he believes in his leader's strength. "I have confidence that he will do it there, in front of his people and on roads he knows so well."
Heras is sure to be strong, and his men are sure to find inspiration in the defense of his lead, but Postal has other options as well "We can always find allies and take advantage of other teams' tactics during the last week," adds Rubiera. Indeed, Heras's current advantage was in part delivered to him on a platter by tactical errors made by the Kelme Team on the Angliru, when Aitor Gonzalez attacked his teammate, then race leader, Oscar Sevilla on the final climb of the day. "Gonzalez even pulled Roberto away from Sevilla when he attacked but kept on going," says Andreu. "Also, the Kelme director didn't realize that Roberto was away and alone until three kilometers from the top. He thought Gonzalez was with Roberto. For Kelme it was not one mistake but many little mistakes that helped Heras take the jersey."
Postal Director Johan Bruyneel was quoted after stage 15 as saying "We have achieved our objective and I believe that Kelme's tactics were magnificent for us." Probably not the effect anyone on Kelme was hoping for, and if Gonzalez's shenanigans on the Angliru have thrown a lasting wrench into the smooth cooperation of the Kelme team, it could again work in Postal's favor. But with ONCE's Joseba Beloki in 4th place and less than two minutes down, Postal will have to contend with more than one strong, motivated team, and much is likely to come down to Heras's individual strength.
As a final note, Frankie Andreu tells us "don't count out Friday's stage- this is one of the most difficult and complicated stages to control." Stage 19 from Bejar to Avila has categorized climbs, but does not end in an uphill finish. The 177.8 km course begins with the climb of the Cat 3 Alto de la Hoya before heading into hilly terrain that could favor an opportunistic break, and will keep the peloton vigilant. The major difficulty of the day comes at 98 km, where the riders must climb 16.7 km climb of the Cat 1 Puerto de Serranillos. The steepest points of the climb are only 8% and it crests 63.1 km from the finish line. The final climb of the day is the Cat 2 Puerto de Navalmoral, which hits it's summit 22.8 km from the finish. With the climb so near the finish, the stage will be harder to handle, and could go to a man in a breakaway.
Stage 20 could be a last chance for the sprinters, and unless he puts some time into his rivals in the next days, Roberto Heras will be fighting a tough battle in Madrid in Sunday. "It's going to be tight," writes Christian Vande Velde in his journal, "But one second or one minute, I don't care, as long as Robbie is on top of the stand at the end."
Read more of Vande Velde's very entertaining journal on his website