Once again, the US Postal Team, now presented by Berry Floor, heads into the tour amid speculation that they are weak, and no shortage of big talk from the challengers. Both ONCE's Joseba Beloki and Saeco's Gilberto Simoni have thrown down the gauntlet in fine style in recent weeks. Beloki told Spanish sports daily AS that he is riding to win, saying he believes that to win, "You have to force Armstrong's decline, instead of just waiting for it," adding, "I believe the US Postal Service Team is weak in the mountains. More than Armstrong, his team can fail."
If Beloki has decided that someone must force Armstrong's decline, Saeco's pink Italian rocket, Gilberto Simoni, thinks he might be just the man to do it. Fresh from an aggressive ride and victory in the Giro d'Italia, Simoni thinks he can make some trouble for Armstrong in the mountains.
They aren't the only potential troublemakers in Postal's seemingly unstoppable "drive for five." Traditionally Armstrong's biggest rival, the Big German hammer, Jan Ullrich, has been quiet as usual, but his legs have been talking, with suspiciously good performances in the Tour de Suisse and the Deutschland Tour. Big Jan is downplaying his chances, but by all accounts, he is well prepared, and it's hard to imagine that a man who's never finished less then second in the Tour de France won't be riding with everything he's got.
Finally, there's ex-Postal worker, Tyler Hamilton, now with CSC, and winner of this year's Liege-Bastogne-Leige and Tour of Romandie, who finished second in last year's Giro d'Italia with a broken wing. Tyler is a tenacious climber who can fly in the time trials. He has a strong team, he knows the competition and the race, and just might give his erstwhile boss man and neighbor a run for his money.
So, with all that firepower in one of the best Tour fields in recent memory, what kind of heat are they packing on the US Postal-Berry Floor team?
Ladies and Gentlemen: Lance Armstrong.
Photo by Scott Schaffrick
What can you say about 4 time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong? Every year the press, the fans, and the peloton look for weaknesses and chinks in the armor, but Lance rolls on. Ruling both the Time Trials and the mountains with legs of steel, Armstrong has been unstoppable in July, and if his final preparation races in 2003 are any indication, he has done the math, and is ready to calculate a 5th win.
Armstrong's victory in the Dauphine last month featured an absolutely murderous Time Trial performance, and a crash that gashed his elbow to the bone and took some bark off at the flanks, but it wasn't enough to stop him. By all accounts, Armstrong is not content to rest on his laurels, and a recent interview with teammate George Hincapie in L'Equipe tells us that they never speak of the tour except to plot tactics, and certainly never speak of it as being in the bag, and that's good, because a lot can happen in three weeks and over 3000 kilometers. Even so, from where I'm sitting, unless Lance is struck down by some dread illness, or takes a wrong turn, he and his dedicated team are poised to mark one down in the history books at the end of July.
One has to wonder what Senor Beloki is thinking when he says Postal is weak in the mountains. Heading up the Postal "mountain goat" division is one of the best in the business: Roberto Heras. Heras rode a brilliant tour last year, making even Lance suffer on his wheel when the road turned up, and his recent strong second in the Volta Catalunya says he is ready to do good service again.
Heras is joined by Postal's new acquisition, Spaniard Manuel Beltran, who rises up in Postal's blue from the ashes of the ill-fated Coast team. A born climber, Beltran has top finishes in the tours of Spain and France to his name, and in 1999, relegated his new teammate, Roberto Heras, to second in the Volta Catalunya. Beltran adds another set of good wings to the climbing squad. Dependable workhorses Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera, and Victor Hugo Pena, both unsung heroes and dedicated teammates who can hang tough on the climbs, will aid Beltran and Heras on the Cols.
For the flats, Postal has no shortage of horsepower, with Viatcheslav Ekimov, Pavel Padrnos and George Hincapie pouring on the gas. After over 13 years in the saddle as a pro, Ekimov, named the Russian cyclist of the century, is showing no sign of decline. He has completed 12 out of the last 13 Tours de France, missing only the 1999 running, when his team did not earn a berth; Eki knows the job at hand. Czech hammer Pavel Padrnos is a diligent domestique with a big engine, who brings vast experience, and a quiet confidence to the squad. Finally, George Hincapie, who has been sidelined for much of the season with a respiratory illness is back on track, and feeling like a first year pro as he heads into this year's Tour de France.
At the beginning of the year, it looked like a rough start for the boys in blue, with Floyd Landis crashing hard to take out a hip, and Hincapie out for the count in spring, but both are back, and ready to take their places at Armstrong's side. Landis and Hincapie are both strong on any terrain, and with George saying that he feels like he's climbing better than ever this year, I'd look for Landis and Hincapie to do more versatile duty, driving it on the flats, and drilling it up the slopes to shepard their man into Paris in yellow.
Hincapie starts his 8th consecutive tour this year, and is the only Postie to have ridden into Paris with Armstrong on all four of his previous victories. Last year was his most impressive performance, as even such jaded old hands as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin were driven absolutely potty by his 5 km pulls up the last climbs of the day on the race's toughest stages.
Landis starts his second tour, coming back from injury to a creditable ride in the Dauphine with a strong time trial and good defense in the mountains. Landis took a heavy fall while training earlier this year, breaking his hip, but has fought his way back, and in addition to his strength in all terrains, he brings his ever-positive spirit and an irrepressible sense of humor to the squad. Earlier this year at the Tour de Georgia, Landis was still limping, and when I asked him about it, he told me "I'm not limping! This is my strut!"
Tie all that together with strong, experienced, cool-headed leadership from former Maillot Jaune wearer Johan Bruyneel, and we're looking at a tough, dedicated team, with a clean, no-nonsense focus on carrying their leader to a historic fifth consecutive win in the centenary Tour de France.
Postal is looking powerful and ready to bring it.
US Postal Service – Berry Floor for the 2003 Tour de France
Victor Hugo Peña
Jose Luis Rubiera
Directeur sportif: Johan Bruyneel