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91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004
An interview with USPS director Johan Bruyneel, July 19, 2004
It's not a formality, really
While riders were making the most of the second rest day of the 2004 Tour de France after a training séance in the morning, while mechanics were washing and checking the bikes before the Alps, Johan Bruyneel had to face the journalists. Mélanie Leveau was there for Cyclingnews.
Johan Bruyneel didn't want to speak only about Lance Armstrong and his team mates, but also about his new rivals, the way he imagines the last week will pan out and the future of the team. To maintain a certain suspense that nobody believes in anymore, it was a relaxed director of the US Postal Service - Berry Floor team that said the Tour is not over and that anything and everything can still happen. For him, Lance Armstrong is not stronger than in the past.
"He's stronger than last year for sure but less than in 2001 and 2002. If there is a bigger difference between Lance and his rivals this year, I think it is because they are not at the same level than they used to be. That explains why Lance looks so strong."
He can't really explain the difficulties Ullrich had to face in the Pyrenees, but he believes the German can do well in the Alps. "He has always been Lance's main rival and he is always the strongest in the last week. So, we are happy to have him so far behind."
Hamilton, Mayo, Heras are already out of the race for victory. (In fact, the latest news at the start of stage 15 was that Mayo had abandoned the Tour and wouldnot start.) There are a few men now able to make the road to Paris more difficult for Armstrong. First there is Ivan Basso who was the last rider able to follow his pace in the Pyrenees.
"He's got a lot of talent, he's a hard worker," said Bruyneel. That explains why US Postal tried to get him in the team last winter. The Under 23 world road race champion (Valkenburg, 1998) and super-hot prospect finally preferred the Danish CSC team for 2004 (after Fassa Bortolo in 2003), where he can ride for himself. At 26, Basso appears to be Armstrong's main rival.
"He's consistent, regular. He is probably not able to do a super performance like Mayo but he is more calculating. He will perform well on l'Alpe d'Huez and even if he is not a time trial specialist he will do a good time next Saturday just to defend his classification".
Ullrich's teammate from T-Mobile, Andreas Klöden, is one other of the candidates for the podium. "He realized a good season after a few seasons lacking. Like Ullrich, he is really good in time trials. I don't expect them to sit and wait for the finish". Basso, Klöden and Ullrich are the only opponents Bruyneel mentioned at the press conference.
An historic sixth TdF victory is in every mind and the time has come to think about the yellow jersey. Armstrong and the whole team were a bit disappointed on the top of the Plateau de Beille where Thomas Voeckler managed to keep 22 seconds over Armstrong in the general classification. For Bruyneel, this advantage could be enough for France's new darling to stay in yellow one more day and climb the Alpe d'Huez in last position.
"I am impressed by the Brioches la Boulangčre team and by the work done by Jean-René Bernaudeau. The objective of the (USPS) team is to be in yellow in Paris. There is no obligation before then. We want the jersey but not at any price. If Voeckler recovers from his efforts today, he could be in yellow on Tuesday night. He deserves the jersey for the way he fought."
Armstrong could wait for the time trial to take the lead of the general classification. But not any longer. Armstrong knows the Alpe d'Huez climb by heart. His teammates too. All together they have prepared for that race since December. Sometimes, they trained eight hours per day in 40 degree heat. They climbed the same mountain several times, enough to know every turn, every steep part of the climb.
"Training and suffering built a group. We have one leader and eight guys ready to do everything to make the leader win. That is US Postal's main strength. When we build the team, we have to be convinced of the total dedication of the rider for Lance," explained the team manager.
The team also has the advantage of having a sponsor who has no commercial ambition out of its country and who never asked any questions about the race program. "Our sponsor has always agreed that we focus on the Tour. It allows us to have an ideal approach to the Tour," he said. The whole team respected the plans made before the race: a good prologue, a good team time trial, to get the yellow jersey and to give it away so as not to have the responsibilities of the race and to surround Armstrong as long as possible in the mountains.
Everything is done so far. Armstrong's teammates have done their job. Wednesday will be the leader's turn and if he performs as well as in the last few days, no doubt he will cross the final stage in Paris in the yellow jersey.
With a new sponsor but still with Lance Armstrong, Bruyneel will go on next year with basically the same ambitions as in the last five years. He is already thinking of building a new team as the American champion has not yet decided if he will be part of the 2005 Tour peloton. A sixth victory would probably make the decision easier.