Team US Postal Service
By John Alsedek
In 1999, the US Postal team did what no other US team has done in
the past - win the Tour de France. This was certainly not an overnight
success, but one based on several years of experimentation with their
lineup until they hit upon that "winning combination".
By John Alsedek
In 1999, the US Postal team did what no other US team has done in the past - win the Tour de France. This was certainly not an overnight success, but one based on several years of experimentation with their lineup until they hit upon that "winning combination".
If any one word could describe the U.S. Postal Service team's rise to the top of the cycling world, that word would be 'tumultous'. In just four years, there have been wholesale changes on both the rider and directorial fronts. Of their original 14-rider lineup in 1996, just two men remain. They are on their third team director, and the support staff has been almost entirely replaced in the past two seasons. Such a constant turnover in personnel is usually a bad sign, either of financial troubles with the sponsors, or of internal dissention. In either case, such teams rarely leave a mark, at least in a positive manner.
However, the U.S. Postal squad is coming off what has been by far their best season, spearheaded by the Tour de France victory of Lance Armstrong, whose successful battle with cancer has made him one of the world's most recognizable athletes...and their success would likely not have been possible if not for those tumultuous first three years. But then, the foundation for the current Postal Service team was being laid over a decade ago, and those days were just as rife with change.
U.S. Postal can actually trace its roots back to the year 1988, when Eddie Borysewicz left his position as U.S. National Team coach and formed his own elite amateur team, sponsored by the Korean electronics firm, Sunkyong. Borysewicz is a Polish immigrant whose knowledge of advanced East European training techniques revolutionized U.S. cycling in the late 70's. The team only lasted for a year, but it laid the groundwork for Borysewicz's next venture, one that involved a partner who has been the one constant ever since: Montgomery Securities. When Sunkyong pulled out, 'Eddie B.' approached Thom Weisel, CEO of Montgomery Securities, and an avid cyclist himself, about financing his team for '89. Weisel agreed, and the Montgomery/Avenir squad came into being.
A year later, assisted by Weisel's office staff, a part-time venture that would later turn into Montgomery Sports (the team's marketing arm) they had a new, big-bucks sponsor in place: Subaru automobiles. With an operating budget of around $600,000, Eddie B. was able to put together an elite 15-man squad that included such riders as '84 Olympic Champion Steve Hegg, future U.S. Professional Champ Bart Bowen...and a brash young Texan named Lance Armstrong. The team turned professional a year later (except for Armstrong, who remained amateur), doing largely a domestic schedule, though they did compete in a handful of European events in April and August.
By 1992, Borysewicz had his eyes firmly planted on the Continent and, with a budget increase to $1 million, made wholesale changes to the roster. In an effort to pick up FICP points, Eddie B. was forced to let go all but two riders - Bowen and Nate Reiss - from the '91 team, and brought in a mixed bag of Euro-pros to replace them. Among the new additions were Swiss veteran Heinz Imboden; young Paul Willerton, who'd ridden the previous year with Greg LeMond's Z team; and the late Jaanus Kuum, a talented but enigmatic all-rounder. While Subaru/Montgomery missed America's biggest race, the Tour DuPont, in a dispute over the entry fee, they had a respectable first season overseas, highlighted by Bart Bowen's victories in the CoreStates U.S. Professional Championship and the VicHerald Sun Tour. It was enough to convince Subaru to increase their committment again, giving Borysewicz about $2 million to work with towards his goal of gaining entry in the 1993 Tour de France.
To put together a team capable of competing in the Tour, there was another mass turnover in personnel - only one-third of the riders were returnees. The big additions were Marc and Yvon Madiot, well-respected veterans who had both been top-ten finishers in the Tour during their careers. Their FICP points moved Subaru/Montgomery to 21st place in the world which was sufficient for entry to World Cup events and possibly, a wild-card berth in the Tour.
However, it wasn't the Madiots who proved to be the team's strongmen. After a modest spring campaign, Subaru/Montgomery came to life in May and June, thanks to the performances of several hitherto little-known riders. In their return to the Tour DuPont, former LeMond teammate, Atle Kvalsvoll finished third overall, while Dutch sprint hammer, Wiebren Veenstra won two stages and the Sprint Jersey. Then, in late May and early June, two others came to the fore: Miguel Arroyo and Cezary Zamana. Arroyo finished fourth in the Classique des Alpes, and ninth overall in the prestigious Dauphine Libere, while Zamana followed up a third place in the Tour d'Amorique with a stage win in the Dauphine and ninth in the Midi Libre.
It was enough to get Subaru/Montgomery a ride in the Tour - sort of. The Tour organizers offered them a chance to be one-half of a composite team with the low-budget French Chazal team, which hadn't had any results to speak of in 1993. Team management rebuked the offer, and Chazal ended up, quite undeservedly, fielding a full squad in the Tour. Following their month-long break, the Subaru riders came back strong, with Norweigian Bo-Andre Namtvedt proving to be a particularly good find: he finished third overall in the Kellogg's Tour of Britain, and an excellent sixth in the Clasica San Sebastian. Still, in spite of the team's strong season, Subaru opted not to continue sponsorship. After three years of racing in Europe, and coming within a hair of riding in the world's greatest race, Subaru/Montgomery was history. But it was not to be the end for Montgomery Securities/Sports.
After spending all of '94 in a fruitless search for a new title sponsor, Montgomery's Thom Weisel took the figurative bull by the horns, and resurrected Borysewicz's team for the 1995 season. Spending money out of his own pocket - estimated to be in the mid-six figure range - Weisel financed the Montgomery/Bell squad. With just two riders, Darren Baker and Nate Reiss returning from the Subaru/Montgomery days, this all-American squad had a drastically different look to it. With UCI points not a pressing concern, Eddie B. went with a mix of former Euro-pros (Baker, Reiss, Marty Jemison), young domestic veterans (Clark Sheehan, Dave McCook), and a couple of relative unknowns who would soon make their presence felt.
However, one of the team's biggest acquisitions wasn't on the bike: former Olympic champion Mark Gorski left his post with USA Cycling to join Montgomery Sports. While Eddie B.'s charges were competing in events like the Tour DuPont (Sheehan won a stage, while Baker finished eighth overall), CoreStates (Sheehan placed third), and the USCF Nationals (Reiss won the road race), Gorski and team assistant manager Dan Osipow were hard at work luring in a new title sponsor. By the time the Montgomery/Bell squad left for a series of European races in August, it was all but confirmed that the team would have a new name in 1996: the U.S. Postal Service team.
But the Postal Service wasn't interested in merely having a strong domestic-based formation. Instead, they wanted to follow the Subaru/Montgomery example and go to Europe. Their contract called for budget increases in '97 and '98, which fit well with Eddie B.'s latest three-year plan: spend the first two years moving up in the UCI standings, and then bring in a 'big gun' for the team's projected 1998 Tour entry. But for 1996, the goal was just to pick up points and develop the team's core group of young riders. In contrast to previous seasons, there was little turnover in the roster, as all but three Montgomery/Bell riders continued on in Postal Service colors. They were joined by climber Mike Engleman, young Poles Dariusz Baranowski and Tomasz Brozyna, and sprinters Remigius Lupeikis and Sven Teutenberg. To head up this youthful team, Postal lured in former Giro winner Andy Hampsten, who was coming off a lost season with Banesto and considering retirement. Instead, he stayed on for one more year, giving the U.S. Postal Service squad a well-respected veteran to show the 'kids' the ropes in Europe.
It didn't take long for the 'kids' to come through, as the team rode several European events in April to prepare for the Tour DuPont. In the pro-am Teleflextoer, former Novell sprinter Teutenberg got the ball rolling by winning Stage 1. However, his victory was soon overshadowed by the performance of second-year pro Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton, one of the virtual unknowns that Borysewicz had brought in the previous year, won the Stage 3 time trial and ended up winning the overall GC. He followed that up with a hard-earned third place stage finish in DuPont, just one of a number of bright spots for the Postal team. Teutenberg won Stage 9, and both he and Reiss each took a second place in subsequent stages. Team leader Hampsten was their top GC man, finishing sixth overall.
Just a few weeks later, another of Eddie B.'s 'finds' came to the fore, as Eddy Gragus, who had shown potential while leading in the previous year's Tour of Poland, took his biggest victory to date, winning the CoreStates U.S. Professional Championship. It was a fine result, and a testament to Borysewicz's assessment abilities. It was also to be Eddie B.'s swan song, as he stepped into the background and yielded up the post of team director to former Motorola assistant Johnny Weltz. It was just one of a number of moves that heralded U.S. Postal's move from a European novelty act to serious contenders.
Five riders left the team, to be replaced by a mix of young Americans and seasoned Europeans, who were lured to the Postal team by the opportunity to ride for themselves. Replacing Hampsten as team leader was former Tour DuPont winner Viatcheslav Ekimov, a professional's professional who was a threat in virtually any race, as he was to prove over the next several months. While other new recruits, such as Adriano Baffi and George Hincapie, picked up stage wins in events such as Paris-Nice and Setmana Catalane, it was Ekimov who was the team's all-star through the first half of the season.
Among his numerous top-ten finishes were: fourth overall in Paris-Nice, where he whomped former Giro winner Evgeny Berzin to win the final time trial; third place and a stage win in the Setmana Catalane; and tenth in the Tour of Flanders. Ekimov clinched the team's wild-card entry in the '97 Tour with a bravura performance in the Dauphine Libere. Despite never having been known as an outstanding climber in the high mountains, 'Eki' led the Dauphine from Stage 2 to Stage Six, ultimately placing eighth overall, and winning two stages for good measure. Unfortunately, his efforts in the early season left him at less than 100% for the Tour, which proved to be a learning experience for the Postal squad.
In the Tour, their top GC rider was fifteenth-placed Jean-Cyril Robin, but perhaps their best performer was the veteran Baffi, who had three top-ten finishes and was part of a courageous three-man break during Stage 7 that lasted 178 km before being caught near the finish. What they learned from their experience was, among other things, that Robin was a good climber, but was more of a follower, and was not the potential Tour challenger that they needed. As the team finished out the season, they found the answer to their greatest need, even if they didn't realize it at the time, when they signed a rider from their past: Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong, whose successful battle with cancer has been deservedly so, well-documented, was a rider without a team in late '97. After missing the entire season, he was unceremoniously dumped by his French sponsor, Cofidis, and was basically 'persona non grata' among the world's teams. He finally signed with the Postal team for a fraction of his previous salary, and went into the 1998 season with absolutely no idea of what to expect. As it turned out, Armstrong wasn't the only one who didn't know what would come next.
After placing a fine fifteenth in his first race back, the Ruta del Sol (where Hincapie took five top-ten finishes), Armstrong got the flu and didn't race again until Paris-Nice, which set off an unusual series of events. He abandoned the race during Stage 2, then disappeared for several days before returning to Austin, Texas. The problem? After proving to himself that he was, in fact, capable of returning to competition with his performance in the Ruta, Armstrong simply didn't know if he wanted to continue racing. Ultimately, he went to Boone, North Carolina for ten days with ex-Motorola pro Bob Roll and his former coach, Chris Carmichael. There he trained and, more importantly, cleared his head. When he was done, he made the decision to continue and came back to racing at his hometown race, the Sprint 56k Criterium, in late May, taking his first victory since 1996.
Of course, while all of that was going on, the rest of the team was starting to come around after a slow start to the season. Ekimov finished top-ten in the Three Days de la Panne, the Four Days of Dunkirk, and the Tour of Flanders; Frankie Andreu placed fourth overall in the Tour de l'Oise; and Baranowski led a strong Postal performance in the PruTour with his third place in GC. By the time Armstrong rejoined the team in time to ride the First Union (formerly CoreStates) race series in early June, the whole team was riding well. Andreu won the First Union Invitational, and Hincapie made up for his disappointment of the previous year (he'd won the U.S. title, only to be disqualified) by winning the First Union U.S. Professional Championship, and Armstrong played a key role in both events as a team worker.
It wasn't long before he got his own chance to shine however, as he continued his return to cycling's elite with victories in the Tour of Luxembourg and Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfart. After those events, he returned to the States while the bulk of the team competed in their second Tour de France, and a much improved performance it was. While they didn't manage any stage wins, the team was far more involved than they had been in '97. In the early going, it was the George Hincapie Show, as he racked up five top-ten finishes in the first week, and came within two seconds of wearing the yellow jersey. Then it was Tyler Hamilton's turn, as he shocked the cycling establishment by placing second in the Stage 7 time trial before succumbing to stomach problems two days later. In the mountains, Robin had a better race as well, eventually finishing in sixth place. He was often accompanied by the Polish revelation Baranowski, who showed that his fourth in the recent Dauphine Libere was no fluke, by riding to an eventual twelfth in general classification.And, as if that wasn't enough, there was a Postal rider in virtually every successful breakaway group, garnering them further attention, if not stage wins.
Yet, even as the team rode to a solid finish in the Tour, there began to be questions asked about the Postal squad's support staff and in particular, about team director Weltz. There were allegations that the team soigneurs were not around when they were needed by the riders; that Weltz was a little too laickadaisical about his position in the caravan; and that, in general, there was a lack of discipline, organization, and leadership from the top. It was a situation that was to be resolved at the end of the season, after Armstrong completed his return to the top by placing fourth in both the Worlds Road Race and Time Trial. Prior to this, he had silenced those who said that he would never succeed in a major tour by finishing a fine fourth in the Vuelta d'Espana. With his new-found clout in the Postal organization, Armstrong agreed to re-sign with the team on one condition - that Johnny Weltz be replaced as team director by recently-retired racer Johan Bruyneel. Despite Bruyneel's lack of experience, it was to prove to be the right call.
On paper, the 1999 U.S. Postal Service team looked to have taken a step backward. While adding the likes of climber Kevin Livingston and Swedish sprinter Glenn Magnusson, the team lost most of their best stage race performers: Ekimov, Baranowski, Robin. Yet, as it turned out, they were hardly missed, due in large part to the work of Bruyneel. While learning on the job, he silenced the complaints about the support staff by almost entirely replacing it with people he knew and trusted to be professional about their work. More importantly, Bruyneel gave the riders specific objectives for the season, objectives that let everyone know what they should be doing, and when. For a race such as the Tour, there was no longer to be the willy-nilly attacking style of the '98 Tour: everyone would have a specific role, and would work for a single leader. Also, having just retired from racing himself, he had a close working relationship with them, and was able to instill in them a level of self-confidence that many of them had never had before.
It wasn't long before Bruyneel's techniques bore fruit. George Hincapie had a marvelous classic season, following up a ninth in Milan-San Remo with fourth place finishes in both Paris-Roubaix and Ghent-Wevelgem. Hitherto little-known Christian Van de Velde won the Redlands Classic, and followed that up with top-four overall finishes in the Circuit de la Sarthe and the Four Days of Dunkirk. And then there was Jonathan Vaughters. Vaughters had always been known as a strong climber, but he finally emerged as a GC rider in the Dauphine Libere, winning the Mont Ventoux time trial and placing second overall. He followed that up with victory in the Route du Sud in late June. However, even with all these strong performers, the leader was still unquestionably Lance Armstrong, and for good reason. He virtually towed eventual winner Michael Boogerd to the finish line in the Amstel Gold Race, and demonstrated a new-found dominance in time trials, winning races against the clock in the Circuit de la Sarthe and the Dauphine.
Even so, it was still a shocker when, after winning the Tour prologue, he completely blitzed the field in the Metz time trial, taking over the leader's jersey. He increased his lead on the slopes of Sestrieres, and never relinquished it, and won the penultimate time trial for good measure. It was a stunning performance, diminished little by the absence of previous winners Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich. It was also a performance that owed a lot to Johan Bruyneel, whose race-savvy tactics earned him praise from his peers. While the riders finished out the season, Bruyneel and the Postal team management were already at work, continuing to retool the lineup in preparation for the 2000 Tour.
There have been a number of changes made for 2000, and virtually all of them look to be significant moves to the better. Riders such as Magnusson and Frank Hoj, who didn't really fill specific needs, have been replaced by a group with very special roles. Britisher Jamie Burrow and ex-Vlaanderen rider Steve Vermaut give Postal additional help in the high mountains. Steffan Kjaergaard is a flatlands hammer who is equally comfortable in a breakaway or setting up a teammate in a field sprint. Cedric Vasseur is the sort of wild-card all-rounder that can surprise in almost any race. Patrick Jonker is an accomplished stage racer who can act as a right-hand man for Armstrong in the tours. And then there's Viatcheslav Ekimov, the consummate pro, who returns after a year's absence. He'll likely prove to be a valuable foil to rapidly developing classics man Hincapie. It's a team that looks set for even greater success in 2000.
U.S. Postal Services