Heras in gold, 2002; courtesy of Unipublic
Led by 2000 Vuelta champion and boasting the strongest roster USPS/Berry Floor has ever fielded for the Spanish Grand Tour, the team has announced its final roster, and there will be some big guns taking the start in Gijon.
As in previous years, the team will be led by Roberto Heras, whose explosive climbing scored him a dramatic victory in the 2000 Vuelta, riding with Kelme. Since making the switch to USPS, he has put that enormous talent to work with impressive results in front of Tour de France juggernaut, Lance Armstrong, but has come up short in his National race, finishing fourth in 2001, and second in 2002. This year, Heras had rough trip around France with a respiratory illness that put him off his game, but USPS/Berry Floor Director Sportif Johan Bruyneel says that Heras is fully recovered from the tour and ready to take on the challenge: "He took some time off after the Tour, tested his feelings at the Tour of Burgos, left that race and has continued to work hard since."
For his part, Heras says he is there to win, telling reporters in Spain that, annoyed by his close... but no cigar rides in the past two years, he intends to fight for victory.
This year's course features a 30 km time trial, six mountaintop finishes, all of which will favor the little Spanish climber, but it's also features two long Individual efforts against the clock on flatter terrain, which have been Heras's downfall in the past. Last year's final individual time trial to Madrid on the last day of the race has been replaced by a more traditional road stage on September 28, but also in Heras's favor is the penultimate stage: a 12 km uphill time trial that could decide the overall GC. Heras has said that he feels it is a 50/50 chance that the race will be decided by a climber over a roleur. A key factor in that decision will very likely be the relative strength of the contending teams.
If there's a team in cycling that knows how to pull together under one man, though, it's Postal. Heras's mountain men will be USPS stalwart Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera, and born climbing machine Manuel Beltran. Versatile riders Floyd Landis, Michael Barry and George Hincapie will shore up their effort, as well as helping control the flats along with Roleurs White, Van Heeswik and Joachim. On paper, it's a killer team.
Rubiera, Beltran, Landis and Hincapie are all coming off of strong performances in July's Tour de France. Rubiera, with his johnny-on-the-spot performances in the Pyrennes this year was arguably Postal's Most Valuable Player for the tour. Beltran reportedly rode hard enough in the Alpes to put even his teammates on the ropes. Landis and Hincapie are coming into the Vuelta fresh with half their seasons lost to illness and injury. Hincapie felt in July that he had ridden his strongest tour ever, a performance punctuated by some very strong work in the mountains and a 7th place finish in the final ITT. Though he has never attempted a grand tour double in the space of one season, his time off the bike this spring has left him motivated and ready to race. Meanwhile, Landis has reportedly been raring to hit up the Vuelta before he'd even stripped off his kit in Paris.
Says Bruyneel: "George and Floyd are two good riders who, due to other circumstances this season, have not yet reached 100% of their strength," said Bruyneel. "They both rode the Tour but still have lots of energy left for the rest of the season. These are riders who are still fresh to ride the whole month of September and that is the key. The most important thing is you have to have fresh and motivated riders - that is 50% of their performance in the month of September. If you have a rider who is motivated and fresh, that is a pretty good guarantee for good results. Floyd in particular is very motivated. He was already talking about the Vuelta during the last week of the Tour."
With a strong, motivated crew, and a leader who is arguably the best climber on a bike today, US Postal/Berry Floor and Roberto Heras are clear favorites for the victory in Madrid.
US Postal Service, Presented by Berry Floor for La Vuelta:
Michael Barry (CAN)
Manuel Beltran (ESP)
Roberto Heras (ESP)
George Hincapie (USA)
Benoit Joachim (LUX)
Floyd Landis (USA)
Jose Luis Rubiera (ESP)
Max Van Heeswijk (NED)
Matt White (AUS)