By Locutus & Jaime Nichols, with invaluable assistance from Cathy Mehl
More straight up Lance Armstrong from US Postal/Berry Floor training camp in Solvang, California.
On whether he was satisfied with the amount of time he'll have to do reconnaissance on the stages of the Tour this year given the increased time he will spend training and racing in the States:
"Oh yeah, I'll spend April here, and you can't do that recon in April. The time trial recon we'll do in March, except for Alpe d'Huez. But the Alps and the Pyrenees you can't get into until late May anyways. So to spend April and the early part of May here doesn't conflict at all. We've made the mistake of trying to go early. It's not a good thing."
On Roberto Heras and Christian Vandevelde leaving Postal and the conversations he's had with them before and after they left:
"I think they're very different. Roberto's was obvious because he went to a Spanish team, he's a big-time Spanish rider. What is an old team is really a new team, with a new sponsor and a new emphasis on bringing in somebody big, and it was late in the year and they had to make that move to keep the sponsor happy. He had the opportunity to give up a year here but take three years with them. Financially it was a good deal, professionally it was a good deal.
Christian's situation was different. I don't think it was necessarily so much tied to Roberto's move, but just an opportunity to go somewhere where he feels like he has a better chance to ride bigger races. He missed out on the Tour for a few years, and he obviously wants to get back to the Tour, get back to the higher level races. It was just a change. In both of those cases, no hard feelings. We all still live in the same home town in Spain, and things are fine. But I haven't had conversations with either of them since before or after, because when the season stops guys go their separate ways. Once you spend 180 days a year with somebody, at dinner tables and bike races and on buses and on planes, when the season's done you sort of leave, and that's it. But nothing remarkable, I mean I think we wished them well. It'll be a new experience for them. Manolo [Saiz] is a good director, he's a tough director, so he'll get the best out of them."
On who from Postal will be in Belgium for the big races:
"Between George and Eki, Max Van Heeswijk, and then the new Belgian contingent we have with Stijn Devolder and the little Van den Broeck for the possibility of the Belgian classics, that's a good group. But already I see a really strong Max Van Heeswijk. He has experience obviously, last year Het Volk was good, Paris-Roubaix was good. And Eki is Eki, and he'll be there. He doesn't show up for bike races unless he's ready."
On his special bond with the Belgian management of the team:
"For some reason, I've talked about it many times, and I'm not sure exactly the connection, other than the fact that I really trust them and I think they know and understand cycling better than most people. They're all very fair people, very honest, very straightforward, very efficient. But we probably deal with 15 or 20 Belgians as riders and staff members, so the team is practically half Belgian."
On whether he had met the new Belgian riders Vand den Broeck and Devolder:
"Yeah, I first met them in Austin in December. They came over, it was their first experience with the team, and they were obviously pretty nervous, which I guess I can understand. I was pretty nervous when I went to my first pro team. But they warmed up well, and they seem to be strong, and still don't say very much, but that's okay. We have other guys, and they never stop talking, and that's not okay. They're a good group of guys."
Asked to say something to anyone going through Chemo or other cancer treatments right now:
"There's a lot of different ways to combat cancer, but all of it is scary, and all of it is perceived to be a death sentence when you're first diagnosed. So it's just important to stay focused and follow the best medical care you can find. So many people are content to stay at home and be passive patients, and I think that that's not always the right way to go. I think it's better to be involved and ask questions and really study your illness, whether it's studying your chemotherapy regimen, or radiation therapy, or surgery, or whatever process your doctor prescribes. Don't just sit back, it's your life."
On the challenges his team will face in this year's Tour and whether Jose Azevedo is the man to replace Roberto Heras:
"The most obvious is the loss of Roberto. Johan is not the kind of guy to sit around and take a loss like that and just let it go. I mean, he immediately was, when he even smelled this loss was coming on he was already working on the next move. To go in and try to find a new rider, to find Azevedo, who is already signed on a team, to have to buy him out and to bring him hear was not an easy process. But we're confident that Azevedo can do the same job that Roberto did. For people who follow the Tour and know the Tour, it's not that hard, you go and watch the videos for the last three or four years, you'll see Jose Azevedo at the front a lot, and you'll see him being a factor, and you'll see him working for Beloki doing exact the same job he'll do here, and you'll see him being very effective in the team time trial and the individual time trials as well.
Let's just put it this way: in the past years, when we've marked certain teams and certain riders, on ONCE Azevedo was one of the riders that we had to mark, because we knew that over the course of three weeks he wasn't going to lose thirty minutes. He wasn't going to lose fifteen or twenty. If you gave him a long breakaway of ten or fifteen minutes, you would have a really hard time making that back. So, for us to be able to get him was great. He's obviously a very good climber. People see and know him as a really good climber, but they probably don't know that he's very effective in the team time trial and also very effective in the individual time trials. He comes from a very experience and strong team with ONCE, he's not young so he's been around, he has his own experience. He's very well rounded. I think you have a rider there that's committed to the team. While I think he has some personal ambitions throughout the year, I think when it comes to the Tour de France he knows that we're all going there for one reason."
Asked who the favorite is for this year's Tour:
"Ullrich's the favorite. I said that a month ago, and nothing's changed. I've been eating donuts since then, so I can't all of a sudden become the favorite. Going to late movies and eating donuts, I can't be the favorite. And drinking beer."
On his impressions of the new young teammates after the first days of camp:
"I'm impressed with Michael Creed. Seems like a good young guy. He came to the team in a funny way because he writes these journals online, and we sort of never thought we'd have a person like that on the team, reading the articles. I asked him the other day, I said 'how do you write those articles'? and he said, 'oh, that's just my outlet, that's not the way I am, I just have to get it out like that.' So, he seems good, seems strong. Couple of young guys, a Spanish guy, Benjamin Noval, seems very strong, a big guy, probably not necessarily a pure climber, but a good guy for the flats to work. Devolder that I just spoke of. Who else are we talking about? Patrick McCarty, you know I grew up in northern Dallas in a place called Plano, and the next little town up is called Allen, and that's where he's from. But I never thought that we would take another rider from north Texas, but it's nice to have him. Very smart kid. He had great results as an amateur. In fact, we were doing some training camps last year before the Tour, in some part of the Pyrenees, where he was there racing with the national team and we followed his progress there. Actually, his parents were staying in the same hotel as us one night so we got the full scoop from his dad. Who else? Daniel Rincon I don't know much of. I know his brother a lot better than I know him. Looks exactly like his brother, rides and peddles like his brother, and his brother was one of the best climbers in the world."
On what these young guys need to do to ride with Postal again next year:
"I would have them call Postal and get them to renew [as a sponsor] for 2005. Right now Postal is not a sponsor for 2005. The way that the organization is set up today is set up to run out after 2004, so we will either be renewing with Postal or looking for a new sponsor. For a young guy that's the first year on the team, we don't expect him to set the world on fire, we don't expect him to win races or to be factors in every race. They just need to come in and show that they work hard, that they don't get injured every other week, that they fit in well with the team, and that they're committed to being a professional cyclist. As long as they do that, they'll be around a long time.
On Dave Zabriskie and his recovery from injury:
"Dave's one of the best talents we have. He had terrible luck with his crash last year and I think it was probably a lot worse than people thought. It really set him back. You start to talk him and start to listen to the level of injuries he had, you'd be pretty surprised that he is where he is. Dave's an interesting guy, as most of us know. If we had the team presentation today everybody would know how wild Crazy Dave is. He's a complete rider. He's a strong time trialist, he can climb well. But now is the time for him to really make the leap to the next level. And I think he can. He's one of the strongest guys here at camp right now from what I can tell."
Asked whether he will ride the Olympics:
"That's my plan right now. They have to select me first, but my plan is to ride again in Athens, if it stays in Athens. It will be really difficult. Twenty days after the Tour de France is probably the toughest period you have. The Tour is hard, you need a period of recovery after that. To get right back into a work cycle, and try to come back up for the Olympic games, will be really difficult. I think that potentially the best riders in the Olympics will people who either skip the Tour, or do half the Tour and go home and refocus, or the people who use the Tour strictly as preparation, meaning they take it easy on the days they can. But for somebody riding all out it could be too much to try to bounce back after 20 days."
Asked if he has considered what might be the right time to end his career, and whether he has a vision of life after cycling in mind:
"No. I learned a long time ago not to try and envision life after cycling. Thatís a waste of time, thatís a waste of energy, itís a waste of vision. You know, my vision right now is to be on this year, and on this tour and on this season. I spent many years before I was sick trying to think about what I was going to do next and it was just a distraction. I know what Iím gonna do this season and Iím quite sure what Iím going to do next year. Um, they deserve the attention and focus that Iím gonna give them. So, nah, life after cycling wonít be complicated, it wonít be as stressful as it is now. But I need to focus on my bike racing right now."
Asked if he considers carrying on beyond 2004:
"I think so. As I said in Belgium, I think you were there six weeks ago or so, but a lot depends on the organization and I would want to keep this organization going. I think for a final season I wouldnít really want to a completely new organization in a different country with a different style of racing and a different style of running the program, a different set of equipment, a different language. I can really see myself racing in 2005 but it would have to be with Johan Bruyneel and these guys."
Asked if not having won an individual time trial in the 2003 tour "niggles" at him:
"Yeah, weíve definitely focused on it. It depends on how you look at it. I mean the first time trial I clearly got beaten for many reasons but primarily because Jan was there. The final time trial was different, the way it unfolded with Jan crashing and no need, no reason to take risks after that. I was reminded that before he crashed and anything happened that I was leading by 15 seconds and that had things been normal and weíd kept going I would have won the time trial I suspect unless I crashed or something extraordinary. So thereís not a big reason for everybody to be too concerned. Jan is also an excellent time trialist if not the best in the world so to lose to him or to lose to a rider like David Millar or Botero two years agoÖyou know itís not that big of a deal. If you win the Tour de France thatís all that matters. I think the answer to your questions is weíve addressed it, weíve made radical changes. I say radical. I shouldnít say radical. Weíve made fairly radical changes to the bike position."
Asked how the new TT helmet is coming along:
"Youíll see. Itís coming. Itís legal. Itís safe. If I fall on my head I wonít die. Itís coming along. Everythingís coming along well. Everybody involved from Giro with the helmets, Trek on the bikes, Shimano, HED with the wheels, itís beenÖ."
Reporter asks if there's a contradiction in Armstrong's assurance that the losses in the ITT's in 2003 are no big deal, and the indication that he is focusing on making changes to address them:
"Iím saying that I donít think that Iíve gone from being the best time trialist in the world to the worst. I think my skills are still there. I think that we solved certain areas based on my time trialing, based on terms of equipment, what other people were using, where we could improve. So weíve gone in and addressed that. But you only win the Tour de France two ways, thatís in the mountains and in the time trials so itís definitely a big deal. But again, I donít think Iím faced with a five minute deficit."
And with that, the half hour was up, and Armstrong was whisked off the scene as the rest of the USPS riders joined us. Stay tuned in the coming week for more interviews!