Silver Spring, Md. — Here I sit, ensconced in the beautiful AFI Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring awaiting the official unveiling of the 2005 Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team. Bob Roll sitting behind me sipping his coffee and chatting with a pretty brunette. Arrayed along the aisles on both sides of the stage are the flags of the fifteen countries represented in the team, and onstage is the new team bike.
Opening the presentation Judith McHale, president and CEO of Discovery Communications said, "Today marks the beginning of a special partnership that allows Discovery to support an inspiring and dedicated group of athletes who represent the very best in sports. Discovery looks forward to developing with Lance and the entire Team Discovery Channel the highest quality programs about healthy living, medical breakthroughs, the science of sports, and cancer survivorship and education for our worldwide audience."
Mike Creed and Tony Cruz
She described Lance’s life story as an inspiration for people around the world, and said the diverse face of the team reflected the global market of the Discovery Channel. Armstrong added, "We could not be more happy that our new title sponsor is Discovery Communications. Since its beginning almost 20 years ago, Discovery has represented the highest standards of quality media and the values that our international cycling team also represent — the pursuit of excellence and a commitment to help people become better, smarter citizens."
Team Discovery Channel is picking up where the former USPS Pro Cycling Team left off, and from the looks of their roster the rest of the pro peloton will rue this “discovery”!
Johan Bruyneel and Dirk Demol
In 2004 Lance Armstrong and the men of US Postal had their most successful season ever, racking up 33 victories in seven countries, winning races from February through October. Johan Bruyneel summed it up thus: “We had a record year in 2004. We know it’s going to be very difficult to do better this season, but we always try to do better.”
“We knew last June when we met with Discovery, that Discovery is an ambitious company, an international company and we have projected that onto the composition of team. We have fifteen nationalities, but cycling is a team sport and I am confident that we have put together the best possible group. We had a strong team and we have made some very strong additions. Goals for this year, we will try to win some classics – we have never won a classic.”
“The ProTour is, I think, a very good system.” Bruyneel said, “We will have the best team, and the best riders in the best races. For us it will be a little change, we will be riding the Giro for the first time. But we have more riders, and more infrastructure, so it’s not a problem. The pro tour is going to be a presence all year in all the countries and I think that is something that a company like Discovery can take advantage of.”
Johan said what everyone already knows – Lance Armstrong has not made a decision on whether or not he will race in this year's Tour de France. Lance will instead focus immediately on the spring classics and only decide on grand tours after the classics are done.
When questioned about those plans Lance said, “It’s definitely a departure to spend the first part of the year not focusing on the tour. The good news is that if you train for the classics, and try to ride well in the classics you will advance your form far enough that you won’t be playing catch up. So I’m going to focus on the classics and evaluate things in April, late April – after the classics are done.”
“In my opinion that’s a fine time to make adjustments, slow things down or speed things up.” Lance also pointed out that while it’s a “romantic idea” for him to be a contender in the classics, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be in the right condition. And he left open the possibility of contesting the Tour for a previously undreamt of seventh victory.
Regarding an attempt at the hour record Lance said “It actually has become a serious consideration. I have in my possession the very first version of the track bike. It’s something that fascinates me. Johan and I have not actually sat down and talked yet about what it takes to do this, or where it fits in the year, which I think is one of the trickiest questions.”
“I think the trick with the hour record is where you do it. Obviously we can do it in Manchester, where it has been done several times. Ideally we would look for a high altitude location, and as we all know there are not many covered velodromes at altitude, so then you are at the mercy of the wind and the elements outside.”
“But we want to do it at altitude so the most likely scenario is for us to build a velodrome for the event and take it down afterward.”
The Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team is the most diverse team in the professional peloton with its 28 men hailing from fifteen countries. Represented on the team are America, Belgium, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, The Czech Republic, and Ukraine.
Stijn, Roger, Ryder, Leif Hoste, and Benoit Joachim
Armstrong mentioned new teammate Fumiyuki Beppu, who is making his pro-debut this season. Reflecting on the squads ever growing diversity, Armstrong quipped, “We all like to learn the bad words in other languages, now Fumi will be my ‘go-to guy’ for Japanese.”
Italian racer Paolo Savoldelli is another new addition. Winner of the 2002 Giro d’Italia and the 2000 Tour de Romandie where he wore the leader's jersey for all but one day, Paolo will bring added strength and depth to the already robust grand tour teams. When asked his goals he stated that while of course he would love to contest the Giro, it being the race dearest to him, he looked forward to supporting the team wherever he was needed.
Fortunately, while the team is working on merging with new racers who speak Italian and Japanese, the next new rider speaks English! Great Britain's reigning Road National Champion Roger Hammond joins the squad after his stellar performance in last year's Paris Roubaix. Roger rode brilliantly throughout the day and responded perfectly to a breakaway with the Lion of Flanders, leaping into that select group which powered away from the peloton. When Museeuw was cursed by a flat, Roger and his compatriots in the break kept the blistering pace going and stormed into the velodrome where Roger placed 3rd on the podium.
Stijn Devolder, Roger Hammond, and Ryder Hesjedal
Not only is the team more diverse than ever this season – so is their calendar! For the first time ever the team will begin the racing season in Malaysia, contesting the Tour de Langkawi, then the Doha Classic and the Tour of Qatar.
Ekimov, Max Van Heeswijk and Jason McCartney
After the formal presentation is the informal chance for talking to the riders. Imagine my surprise when, as the team strolled into the room, Roger Hammond broke ranks and came over to give me a great big hug! (Such a sweetheart – he remembered riding with me in Belgium last April!) Roger is thrilled with his team and the teammates so far. “It’s been great, really great. Exciting. In December we had a team camp in Austin, and I was there for eight days. Now I’m here and tomorrow we fly out to California for the full team camp.”
Roger told me about his Olympic curse: “Unbelievable that, wasn’t it? The pavement just before my garage, it looked absolutely perfect so here I got out of my car – I’m leaving for the Olympics the next day – I step onto the pavement and BAM! Drop right through up to my waist. I just stood there trying to assess the damage, you know – what have I broken?”
“Thing is – I was on the Olympic squad before, in Sydney, and I fell and broke my wrist so I missed the Olympics and that always kind of hurt. So here I was on the squad again and for the final six weeks before the games I was so careful. I stayed out of bunch sprints, didn’t want to risk getting knocked out of the games again and here I go through the pavement outside my house the day before my flight! It was unreal.” Roger laughed, fortunately he wasn’t injured badly, was able to ride in the Olympics and took seventh place in the men’s road race!
I asked Roger about the impact of the ProTour on teams like Mr.Bookmaker. “It’s going to be hard. It actually made my decision to leave a bit easier, because I wanted to be able to race the classics. I hope that the sponsors will stick around for those teams, but it’s a question of whether the sponsors feel they are getting enough exposure for their money. Mr.Bookmaker invested a huge amount over the last couple years and was seen in all the big races – Flanders, Paris-Roubaix. Now this year they increased the budget to 5 million euros and the exposure they are going to get is much, much less. I think if the smaller teams make it through the first year then they will be okay.”
“In the long term though, overall I think the ProTour will be good for the sport. The thing about it is that it’s sort of drop kicking cycling into the modern world. Like with any change, initially it is difficult but I think it’s a positive change overall.”
Roger said his program is set already until the beginning of June. “Unheard of for me, really!” He’ll be racing Qatar, Ruta del Sol, Trofeo Luis Puig, Het Volk, Kurne Brussels Kurne, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Waregem, 3 days de Panne, Flanders, Wevelgem, and Roubaix – then holiday! Sounds like the perfect spring for a classics kind of guy! “It’s amazing! Just the best preparation for the classics, and the best combination of the classics as well. It’s just fabulous.”
When asked about the grand tours Roger said, “I’m not particularly desperate to ride a tour. I mean, everybody thinks it’s something we all dream about doing, but... When I go home to Britain people always ask if I’ve ridden the Tour yet, I mean it’s exposure – the Tour, the Olympics, that’s all most people know. The mountains aren’t my forte, and I couldn’t go to the Tour to try for a stage win because the team has other objectives. So what could I do on the tour? It’s better I don’t go.” I commended Roger for his sanity, something always a little in doubt for those classics types.
Next I bumped into the ever smiling Tony Cruz! He laughed when I complimented him on being one of the few guys on the stage smiling. “I think a lot of the guys, well they’re more comfortable on their bikes than on the stage.”
Gennady Mikhaylov and Tony Cruz
When asked about his schedule Tony replied, “Pretty much the same routine as previous years. Except we’re starting to race a little earlier, with Malaysia which is great for me because I have done well there before. I raced there in 2000 for Saturn. I won a stage and sat in second place for two thirds of the race and I really enjoyed that, so I’m looking forward to going back there!"
“Then it’s on to the Belgian classics.” In Tony we have another racer who simply loves the brutal Belgian cobbles. “I grew up in sunny southern California, and for some strange reason I love the classics in Belgium. Here it is cold, grey, rainy, and windy. And I love it. I love it when we’re riding single file in the gutters and things are starting to break apart. It’s really exhilarating. When you can blow a field apart and race for the win, it’s incredible.”
Tony had his first win in four years last year taking a stage at Tour de l’Ain. “Actually the first year I came to Postal I had a couple opportunities to lead in races, but I was just getting my feet wet in European races. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I actually wanted to come back to the US after a couple months of racing because the level was so much harder, and I just didn’t expect that. I had a really heavy schedule and they said we are going to work for you on a couple races and I failed miserably and that was it.”
“So I took on the new role of a domestique. It was good for me, it helped me to learn at a slower pace, with less pressure. So after two or three years I felt ready to lead, to have another chance and still I wasn’t getting the opportunity. I decided I had to be a little more resourceful and started getting thirds and seconds and finally I won a race. That has opened up the door for me, so I think things may be different this year.” Looking forward to a fabulous season watching Tony cruising to victory again!
After a brief moment of George gazing, it was time to wander over and chat with Chechu! First off I have to tell you – this man is amazing. Try googling him in the Spanish news and you’ll find him doing fundraisers to buy holiday toys for underprivileged children, and for a girl with a brain tumor, and lending his celebrity the Lupus Association of the Asturias, and participating in a presentation for school children on the benefits of sport, and on and on! There must have been an event a week, or more, between the end of November and the first week of January.
When I asked Chechu about all his charity work he laughed saying “Yes, it was a crazy winter! I normally spend one week on vacation and the rest of the winter I am home, training and studying. If someone calls me with some nice reason I try to go help whenever I can.”
Talking the Vuelta, Chechu said, “This year we have two stages, hard stages in Asturias. We’ll finish on top. I don’t know my schedule yet, but probably this year my opportunity will be in the Vuelta. I don’t know yet if I’ll be riding in the Tour, but to ride in the Vuelta – two stages at home, and in Spain, that will be nice. Victory there would be sweet.” Sweet indeed!
Chechu had already earned his engineering degree in Spain, but has returned to University this winter to begin his advanced degree, which will take two years more.
Lance Armstrong made history while proving himself to be the fastest six-shooter in the world, the Texan toppled the previous Tour de France records of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinaualt, and Indurain. In six short years Armstrong and his Blue Train claimed victory a record six times in the greatest show on earth – Le Tour de France.
But perhaps sipping champagne on the Champs Elysee is losing some of its lustre for the Texan? Maybe speeding through the French countryside in July has lost its charm? Time for new vistas or maybe it’s the urge for new conquests? A classics victory to round out his palmares?
Or is Lance up to another of his famous poker-faced ploys, attempting once again to psych out his competition? Last year's game led his fans and foes alike into teeth gnashing, keyboard bashing, white-knuckled rants across the internet wondering whether he was “going Hollywood” and eating Krispy Kreme donuts instead of training. Well, we all know how last July played out.
At any rate the Texan is playing coy over his summer plans for 2005. All he will admit is that he is contractually obligated to ride the Tour once more before the end of 2006. He says he will be riding the spring classics and will judge his form come the end of April, deciding then whether the Tour’s allure will draw him back to race this year.
Be sure to check out the teams hot new website www.TeamDiscoveryChannel.com ! It’s definitely graphic intensive but if you have the bandwidth it’s a great ride with tons of sweet features.
One nice touch is the video galleries covering everything from a behind the scenes look at the Discovery Channel’s OVERHAULIN’ Lance’s GTO to Bruyneel pontificating on forming the perfect team! You can check out the teams mini training camp in Austin or watch Lance talk bikes.
But my favorite section is a series of mini-interviews with some of the riders themselves! Watch Tom Danielson, Roger Hammond, Jason McCartney, Stijn DeVolder, Leif Hoste, Max Van Heeswijk, Benjamin Noval, and Pavel Padrnos each talking about cycling, racing, and what motivates them.
The complete Team Discovery Channel squad is: Lance Armstrong (USA), Jose Azevedo (POR), Michael Barry (CAN), Manuel Beltran (ESP), Fumiyuki Beppu (JPN) , Volodymyr Bileka (UKR), Janez Brajkovic (SLO), Michael Creed (USA), Antonio Cruz (USA), Tom Danielson (USA), Stijn Devolder (BEL), Viatcheslav Ekimov (RUS), Roger Hammond (GBR), Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), George Hincapie (USA), Leif Hoste (BEL), Benoit Joachim (LUX), Jason McCartney (USA), Patrick McCarty (USA), Gennady Mikhaylov (RUS), Benjamin Noval (ESP), Pavel Padrnos (CZE), Yaroslav Popovych (UKR), Hayden Roulston (NZL), Jose Luis Rubiera (ESP), Paolo Savoldelli (ITA), Jurgen Van den Broeck (BEL), Max Van Heeswijk (NED).
Lastly, a thanks to the other boys in blue – Officers Barnes and Baskot - the Montgomery County bike cops stationed outside the theater during the presentation!
Montgomery County Police