There's always a lot of talk in the weeks before Le Tour de France, and most of it centers around a certain Mr. Lance Armstrong. Is his team strong? Is he bluffing when he loses big to Iban Mayo? Will he bore holes in David Walsh with his laser beam eyes? Will he bring Sheryl Crow to the tour? Has he been eating donuts all winter? Is he fat? Is he thin? Is he haggard? Is he distracted? Will he win his sixth Tour de France this month? Blah, blah, blah. The sheer volume of talk that swirls around Armstrong in the weeks leading up to Le Tour is staggering, and I guess what strikes me hardest about that is how much the tour isn't about talk; it's all about action.
When it comes to making it happen in the Tour de France, I think we can all agree that Lance Armstrong is The Man. This year, the US Postal Service team takes the start at the Tour de France for the last time in those colors; led, as they have been for five straight victorious years, by their legitimately incredible promethean superhero, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong matched the record last year, joining an elite club - Anquetil, Hinault, Merckx, Indurain - the best riders in Tour (and any other) history. The question, then, on the eve of the 2004 tour, is: can Armstrong do what no other man has done, and go one better to set the all time record?
The field, as usual, is loaded and taking aim against him: Jan Ullrich took a big victory in the Tour de Suisse last month, and he's looking like a lean, mean, bike racing machine in Liege - as good as, or better than we've ever seen him that the start of a Tour. Armstrong's former lieutenant Tyler Hamilton, who rode to a brilliant 4th place last year despite a broken collarbone, has a strong, united team, the heart of a champion and he's there to win. Iban Mayo beat Armstrong up Mt. Ventoux in the recent Dauphine by nearly two minutes - a surprisingly large margin - could the Basque climber be the one to topple Armstrong? Then there's the way he struggled to prevail last year, which very likely taught a lot of guys to hope as they'd scarcely dared to hope before; but even his rivals aren't underestimating him now. Ullrich has said that he's certain Armstrong bluffed on Ventoux, and Hamilton has said that to win the tour, he'd have to be strong enough to take Armstrong circa 2002; I'm sure you all remember it - that was the year he won the tour by over seven minutes over Joseba Beloki, looking like he never really broke a sweat for three weeks.
This is only more talk, but here's what I think: Last year was an anomaly, and Armstrong is as strong as ever. Speaking to the press in the days before the tour, he looks fit, confident and relaxed. Unflappable after his defeat on Ventoux, Armstrong has said that he's right where he needs to be; building form to be ready to face the mountains in the final week of the tour. Postal's master tactician, Johan Bruyneel, has said that he is convinced that "Lance will succeed again this year," and Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael, says that the numbers are good, and all systems are go. Armstrong is ready. He knows how to win this race, and he knows his competition.
And then, there's his team. If any team knows how to win the Tour de France, it's this one, after five years of victory, four of them as the heavily marked favorites, this is truly an all-star team. Without his crew, Armstrong would never even be thinking about a sixth tour this year, but with big hammering hardmen like Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Padrnos giving their last drop of sweat to the effort, the Cadillac of domestiques, George Hincapie, and the amazing Floyd Landis drilling the flats and the early climbs, and with the likes of Manuel Beltran, Jose Azevedo, Benjamin Noval and especially big-hearted Chechu Rubiera to watch his back in the mountains, its hard to see a chink in the Postal armory.
There are a few changes on the team this year: Armstrong loses flyweight Spanish climber Roberto Heras, who now becomes a rival on Liberty Seguros; while Victor Hugo Pena does not take the start this time around. The new faces are Azevedo, formerly one of Joseba Beloki's key lieutenants on ONCE, who has also proven himself individually, with top ten finishes in the Tours of Italy and France in 2001 and 2002; and Benjamin Noval, who rides the Tour de France for the first time this year. Noval is a strong climber and time trialist, who joins Postal after three strong years with Relax-Fuenlabrada, with excellent finishes both in the mountains, and against the clock. Azevedo and Nozal join Manuel Beltran, who put the hurt on more than a few guys (including the boss, reportedly) in the Mountains of the Tour last year, and the invaluable Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera, whose strength, steadiness and dedication made him the MVP of last year's nail-biting edition of US Postal's drive for five.
While Noval takes on his rookie year, the US Postal team also boasts some of the most experienced Tour de France riders anywhere. Viatcheslav Ekimov, who has had a long career kicking ass and taking names, is the oldest rider in the race at an amazing 38 years old, and has finished a staggering 13 Tours de France. I really have nothing at all to add to that. George Hincapie, meanwhile, starts his 9th consecutive Tour de France. Hincapie, often said to be the heart of the team, is the only postman to have ridden into Paris for all five of Armstrong's victories, and he's just been stronger and more versatile every year. Pavel Padrnos is a diligent domestique with a big engine who knows the job at hand, and I think we can expect some excellent riding this year from Floyd Landis, who did strong work last year coming off of a broken hip, but who is unscathed so far this season. Landis is a very strong time trialist, who can climb with the best, and I expect to see him making his presence felt in the mountains as well as the flats this year.
It's a strong team, but I'd say that one of their biggest strengths is the fact that for the past 4 years, they've showed up on the start line with the favorite, and they've endured the pressure, year after year, of supporting a man who comes to the Tour de France saying he's going to win, and then does. Like I said, there's a lot of talk out there, but the tour is about showing up and making it happen everyday for three weeks. Can Lance Armstrong win six? I'd say the answer is yes. Now let's see if he does.
And, now that we've established what big studs they all are on the US Postal team, let's talk about how dorky these mugshots are:
USPS for Le Tour: Lance Armstrong, Viatcheslav Ekimov, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Pavel Padrnos, Chechu Rubiera, Manuel Beltran, Jose Azevedo and Benjamin Noval