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Mont Ventoux
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US Postal Service presentation: Lance and co. ready for number 5

By Jonathan Devich in Calfornia

Lance and Johan
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From January 21st through the 30th in California, one of the top cycling teams in the world gathered for its first training camp of the year. During that period, new bikes were given out and adjusted, new team kits arrived, and off season signings got to meet their new teammates.

The team for this year remains mostly intact from 2002, except for three new riders: Damon Kluck (USA), Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus) and Max Van Heeswijk (Ned). Van Heeswijk is familiar to the team since he rode with Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie on the Motorola team.

"It's good to be back," said the experienced Dutchman. "I hope to help George do good in the classics, I want to do good in those."

Van Heeswijk spoke modestly about hoping to "do good in those." Last year he finished 8th at Paris-Roubaix while riding for Domo, the team that gave Hincapie so much trouble. Among his podium spots last season was his win in the second stage of the Route du Sud, and his third place at the Dutch National Championships.

The rest of the team remains unchanged, which suits the management and Lance Armstrong just fine. Armstrong spoke about how things go much smoother when you have the same people around through the years.

Floyd Landis
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"We've had a hard time keeping the core group and this is the first time we've done it," he said. "I think it's part luck and part plan. I think we're really confident now. We're comfortable with the group we have, everybody gets along and everybody knows their role."

One of the top returning support riders this year is Floyd Landis. Landis, who began with the team last season, came on strong at the Dauphiné Libéré where he took second behind Armstrong. During his first ever Tour de France, Landis proved invaluable to the team effort, keeping Armstrong safe in the yellow jersey. However the beginning of this season took an unexpected turn for Landis when he broke his hip while riding three weeks ago.

"I was out for a little ride on my own and made a little mistake coming down a hill and crashed on my right hip. I broke my hip, the femur up where the joint is. I had surgery on it and they put three screws in. It's been about two and a half weeks and I can ride the trainer now," explained Landis.

Victor Peña
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Another returning rider for 2003 who pulls double duty as a support rider for Armstrong in the Tour and a podium contender for the team, is Victor Hugo Peña. At the beginning of last season Peña made the podium at the Tour of Murcia. Coming off of his first stage race win and going well through the early season, he went to the Tour in support of Armstrong. Peña finished off his season with a stage win at the Tour of Holland before riding the Vuelta in support of Roberto Heras.

"For me last year was a good year," said the Colombian. "I went to Spain in the beginning of the season and did strength training and had good condition. I was proud to be on the dream team for the Tour de France. After the Tour I did the Tour of Holland, it was special because it was the first time a Colombian had won a big race like in the Tour of Holland."

George Hincapie
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Rounding out the team for 2003 are Michael Barry (Can), Antonio Cruz (USA), Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), Roberto Heras (Spa), George Hincapie (USA), Benoît Joachim (Lux), Steffen Kjaergaard (Nor), Kenny Labbe (USA), Pavel Padrnos (Cze), Jose Luis Rubiera (Spa), Christian Vande Velde (USA), Robbie Ventura (USA), Matt White (Aus) and Dave Zabriskie (USA).

The main goal for the team remains the same, the Tour de France. Armstrong spoke about it with the enthusiasm and confidence.

"I love it. I still love what I do. I love being around a good group of guys, its fun to try to maintain the successful program."

Expectedly, on every one's mind is also whether or not Armstrong will win his fifth Tour in 2003. Every mind that is, except apparently Armstrong's.

"I'm not here to chase records. Once I'm done then we can go back and count," insists Armstrong. "I get a little freaked out by it - I don't want to jinx myself. Let's talk about something else."

Lance Armstrong
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Armstrong went on to talk about his plans for the year and his work-up to the Tour. "I plan on starting at Murcia, Setmana Catalana which is back this year, then back to Circuit de la Sarthe and then the classics. Perhaps somewhere along the way I could even see going back to Milan - San Remo or Tour of Flanders if my condition is sufficient."

One race that at this point Armstrong is sure he won't be at is the World Championships. "I thought about it and I thought yeah, then I thought some more and I thought no. It's not definitely no because winning the Tour de France is not guaranteed. If I were to not win the Tour - which is a real possibility - then I need to race the rest of the year at 100% and that could mean the Vuelta, it could mean the World Championships, it could mean World Cups in the fall. We'll see."

For the Tour however, Armstrong feels that he will be racing against the same competition as in years past. And he hopes that Ullrich has made a good decision with his move to team Coast, one that will benefit Ullrich in the long run.

"There's nobody new. The same guys, Ullrich, Beloki, the new version of Telekom will be tough with Botero, Nardello, Evans, Savoldelli, it's gonna be a tough team."

The USPS bike
Photo: © Jon Devich
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And his thoughts on Ullrich's team change? "I'm not him and I don't know his concerns, all I can say is what I would have done. I think probably for him the best thing would be to enter a program that is best for him physically, mentally, partnership wise. I thought perhaps the best move would have been to go back to [CSC manager Bjarne] Riis."

Beyond Armstrong, and a highly probable fifth straight Tour victory, the team this year has many exciting opportunities. Might we see Hincapie win Paris-Roubaix or another of his favourite spring classics? Will Heras once again conquer the Vuelta? With the help of new sponsors including presenting sponsor Berry Floor, new fire power in the team's roster, and the wealth of experience that has stayed on, the team certainly looks ready for what lies ahead.

Team list


Images by Jonathan Devich/TheFastrack.com

Images by Jonathan DevichTheFastrack.com

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