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Postal 2002 comes out into the sunshine

By Jonathan Devich

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Big team, bigger country
Photo: © Jonathan Devich
 

It's not every day that the best cycling team in the world comes to train on the roads around your hometown. But on the weekend of January 11 that is exactly what happened in Scottsdale, AZ.

On Friday it seemed like more of a dream as I loaded up the truck with cameras, a tape recorder, and my note pad for interviews. On the way to one of Scottsdale's more posh resorts, temporary home of this years USPS Team, I even got to stop by my neighborhood Starbucks to grab a coffee. There's just something special about enjoying a good cup of coffee from your local coffee shop when you're going to work. A luxury I don't normally enjoy, as I am usually on the road, and stopping in someone else's local coffee shop.

 
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"And then you turn left at the cactus..."
Photo: © Jonathan Devich

Being on the road for work, however, was not exactly what this camp was all about for the USPS team. The time scheduled for this weekend was predominantly reserved for photo shoots, getting new gear, and shmoozing with sponsors, with a little bit of time on the bike added in. All riders were present including the seven new additions for this year; Michael Barry, Tom Boonen, David Clinger, Floyd Landis, Chann McRae, Gianpaolo Mondini, and Pavel Padrnos.

This season the team, now in its seventh year, embarks on its first year of a three year deal with the U.S. Postal Service who contributes a major portion of its estimated 12 million dollar budget, for the next three years. While Armstrong does command a high salary for his accomplishments the team's management company, Tailwind Sports, has also provided for a powerful group of support riders. With such successful and seasoned riders as Levi Leipheimer, Tyler Hamilton and Viatcheslav Ekimov now gone from the squad, the team staff had some large shoes to fill. Director Sportif, Johan Bruyneel, feels that they have done that with the seven new riders.

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Floyd Landis
Photo: © Jonathan Devich
 

As I spoke with Floyd Landis, a survivor of the Team Mercury episode and one of the new recruits, I could see the confidence that could put him on a podium in one of the three major tours in years to come. Bruyneel has already hinted at the chance for Landis to ride this year's Tour de France in support of Armstrong's efforts.

When asked if he feels confident to ride in the Tour Landis said without hesitation, "Yes". "I know that I can do it, it will just depend on how I perform in the spring." For now though, he is very happy to have been signed by the Postal Team. He commented on the opportunities that lie ahead as well as the chance to gain experience by riding for Armstrong and other grand Tour veterans.

Lining up next to Landis will be Postal's first Italian rider, Giampaolo Mondini. Mondini makes the move from the shaken Mercatone Uno team. Having ridden for one team leader in the past will keep things on familiar ground for Giampaolo. Mondini's growing friendship with Armstrong, kindled since his solo stage win in the '99 Tour which Armstrong won, played a key role in his move to the Postal squad and he will be dedicated to a support role for his American friend come July.

 
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"The light was yellow, sir"
Photo: © Jonathan Devich

Returning rider George Hincapie will once again have his sights set on the classics and a World Cup victory. Winning Ghent-Wevelgem this year was a confidence boost as he fought his way through the trenches of the spring classics. Four days later at Paris-Roubaix Hincapie didn't finish in the top spot but did show the world that it is only a matter of time and luck before he takes his first major classic victory.

After a short break he was back on the bike and took third place in Philadelphia at the beginning of June, finishing behind repeat winner and best friend Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) and second place Saturn rider Trent Klasna. His grand finale of the year was winning the new American classic, the San Francisco Grand Prix. In front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans Hincapie powered away from his breakaway companions, showing why he could very soon take home the so far elusive cobble trophy of Paris-Roubaix.

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Lance leads the leg-warmer lads
Photo: © Jonathan Devich
 

Lance Armstrong. No secret here, the Tour is once again the goal for the year. However, Lance will be riding in various spring classics in support of his friend, Hincapie. He looks good, relaxed and very fit. On the Sunday morning ride Armstrong led his team back from Bartlet Lake, a popular round trip route for the local racing contingent, also known for its climbs.

As he ascended in his trademark high cadence fashion past my fiancée, Paula, who was taking pictures from the side of the road, he yelled out, "Hey lady, when does the climb start?" As if to say that he is feeling as good as he looks. This year he will attempt to win his fourth straight Tour and even with the loss of several key riders he has built a strong team for support.

 
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The team rolls up
Photo: © Jonathan Devich

Also back on the job is diminutive Spaniard Roberto Heras. Heras will again play an integral part in keeping Lance safe in the mountains. In this past year's Tour he showed that even when having a bad day he will not leave Lance's side. The 2001 Vuelta did not go as well as hoped for defending champion Heras, although a fourth place is nothing less than admirable. Barring injury he could very well win the Spanish tour for the second time.

On the other side of Lance will be Jose Luis Rubiera, the seemingly tireless Spanish climber who buried himself to help launch Armstrong's crushing attack on l'Alpe d'Huez last summer. Not to be forgotten are the riders who will focus on the U.S. races, led by nine time Tour de France finisher and continuing U.S. team manager Frankie Andreu.

Throughout the past couple of years the USPS Team has increased its presence at US races and will continue that effort this year with such riders as Tony Cruz, Robbie Ventura, Dave Zabriskie, and new recruits Michael Barry and David Clinger. Andreu stated," for bigger events such as the US Pro Championships in Philly, all of the American riders, except Lance, will be present; along with some European teammates as reinforcements. Hincapie wants the USPro jersey back, and he will return for the San Francisco GP."

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Riding in the sunshine for a change
Photo: © Jonathan Devich
 

Sunday concluded the camp for most riders. Lance was off to San Diego to run with the Olympic torch while others headed home to prepare for the next camp in Spain. The Spanish camp at the end of this month will be a true training camp with many kilometers to be had by all. For me the camp, and my dream, was over when I realized that I had to pick up dog food on the way back home.

That night, with the dogs happy, I reflected on the events of the weekend. A professional cycling team's preparation for the season is an incredible undertaking. With contracts to be signed, sponsors to please, new equipment to be handed out, travel arrangements to be made, etc, etc. it seems a daunting task. But, the USPS Team staff and riders made it all look so easy. With such a well-oiled program, the cycling world is sure to see big performances from this team again this year.

2002 U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Roster

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Lance leads out the squad
Photo: © Jonathan Devich
 

Lance Armstrong (USA)
Michael Barry (Can)
Tom Boonen (Bel)
Dylan Casey (USA)
David Clinger (USA)
Antonio Cruz (USA)
Roberto Heras (Spa)
George Hincapie (USA)
Benoit Joachim (Lux)
Steffen Kjaergaard (Nor)
Kenny LABBE (USA)
Floyd Landis (USA)
Chann McRae (USA)
Gianpaolo Mondini (Ita)
Pevel Padrnos (Cze)
Victor Hugo Pena (Col)
Jose Luis Rubiera (Spa)
Christian Vande Velde (USA)
Robbie Ventura (USA)
Matthew White (Aus)
Dave Zabriskie (USA)

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