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News feature, February 5, 2007 - Part I
Pre-season Disco: Discovery Channel training in Solvang
For the past few years, Solvang, California has been home to the pre-season camp for the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team. The quaint Danish town sits amid some of the most scenic terrain in the state, and quiet roads that are perfect for training. As riders and management convened at the Royal Scandinavian Inn, Cyclingnews' Kirsten Robbins was there to find out what the team is doing to prepare for the upcoming season.
One of the riders' favourite parts of the camp is the new clothing and equipment hand-out. When the full team arrived in the lobby to ride at 10am sharp, U.S. national champion George Hincapie stood out in his stars and stripes version of the team jersey, as did Japanese national champion Fumiyuki Beppu, who was distinguishable in his red an white rendition of Discovery's uniform. The rest of the team showed off the team's new, predominanly black kits.
One rider going into 2007 with a great deal of momentum is Tom Danielson, who took a stage win and sixth place overall in the Vuelta a Espana. The camp offered a chance for Danielson and his teammates to have some quality time together on and off the bike. "The training camp does a good job of bonding the team together and that's the clear purpose." said Danielson. "They put riders in rooms together that don't know each other. We train five or six hours together and that provides a lot of time to rotate through the group and talk with everyone, to see each other's talent on the bike."
Discovery Channel's director sportif Johan Bruyneel admitted that the team is piling on some extra miles in California. "We are here for the riders to get more miles in and to take advantage of the fact that they are training with a group. A lot of riders come from countries where the weather is not so good. So, we take advantage of having a group and put more hours in on the bike than normal."
Inevitably, the riders are keen to test their legs and take part in some friendly competition after the long winter months spent training solo. The team was split into two groups each day based on each rider's focus: classics or climbs. "We have been doing some specific work on the climbs," Bruyneel said. "The better climbers are slightly behind in their preparation in comparison to those who train for the classics. Levi and Tom have shown that they are in great shape already and it shows they are motivated for the Tour of California."
As the Discovery Channel team grows and changes, there are new faces and new personalities, and the camp is an important time for the riders to learn to work together. This year, the team needs to learn to work with their new leader Ivan Basso, and Bruyneel was more than pleased with how quickly Ivan became a part of his new team. "Ivan's integration with the team has been very smooth as you can see for yourself. Ivan is a friendly guy and he is trying to be a champion bike rider," Bruyneel said. "He is kind to everyone. At our first training camp in Austin I could see his integration was going to be very good. Everyone likes to be around him and he is just another guy on the team."
Basso has also built strong relationships with the team's sponsors and management staff. "The sponsors wanted very strongly to have Ivan be apart of our program and I can see that his relationship with our sponsors has already been established and they are huge fans of him," Bruyneel said. "As for me, my relationship with Ivan is still fresh. I am still trying to learn about him and he is still trying to learn about me. I need to have a very close relationship with the riders and I feel there will be a strong relationship with Ivan."
Basso is clearly the team leader of choice, but Bruyneel's squad has a few more aces in its hand. Both Yaroslav Popovych and new acquisition Levi Leipheimer have stood on the final podium of a Grand Tour - Popovych was third in the 2003 Giro d'Italia and Leipheimer third in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana. "There is a place for all of our riders to shine," Bruyneel said. "It is about setting goals. With Lance it was clear that he was the only leader for the Tour de France but this is not the case anymore. The most important thing is that Discovery wins. Sometimes we will need three leaders to win one race and two of those leaders will have to learn to sacrifice themselves for the other one."
Multiple leaders is something that's new to the team, but the concept has its positive points. The climbers took turns 'stretching their legs' on some of the Solvang climbs in a little high-spirited but amicable competition - but it was clear that internal competition will make these riders stronger to take on the rest of the peloton. "The possibilities are exciting and endless this year," said Danielson. "I go home thinking that I can't make any mistakes with training because everyone is so good on my team that I need to continue the trend and increase my performance to a higher level. It has been good for everyone. We all arrived to Solvang in good condition because there's a fire lit under us that says: Man, look at all these good guys on the team, if I slack off just a little I might not get to go to any races. So this is very exciting."
Levi Leipheimer was also one of those taking part in the mock-races with the climbers, and is enjoying his new team. "There are a lot of new riders on the team this year," Leipheimer said. "I think the general feeling is that it is almost like a new team, a fresh team. Johan wanted to make a big change from last year. Everyone is very excited about this change. Change brings about new motivation and everyone realizes things are different than years past."
Leipheimer came over from the Gerolsteiner squad as a potential team leader before the signing of Basso, but isn't unhappy about taking on a slightly different role than he anticipated, and agrees that having two cards to play is always better than one. "When I originally signed the contract a lot of people jumped to the conclusion that I would be the only leader or focus for the Tour de France," Leipheimer said. "However, my best finish was sixth and I do not have the record like Ivan does and I have never won the race like Lance did.
"However, when Ivan signed, it wasn't like I was demoted - it just changed things and gave us more opportunity. Now Discovery Channel has a real favourite for the Tour where as I was just counted among others as a podium contender. I think that if the time comes that Ivan can take the yellow jersey than we will sacrifice everything for him to win. There is also the possibility that we can both finish pretty high in the general classification."
Leipheimer and Danielson may have their chance to be team leader at the fast approaching Tour of California, and while at camp the team previewed the course for the stage five Solvang time trial, which should be one of the decisive days of the race. "We do not have a true leader decided for the Tour of California," Danielson said. "Obviously Levi is motivated and in very good condition, but we are bringing a very good team to the Tour of California and I think that truly our only objective is to try to win the race. It is a hard race to win because there is no mountain top finish, no extra long time trial, so to beat a guy like Dave Zabriski we need to bring the whole team together and be creative and smart."
Though Basso has strongly indicated that he would like to win his first race with Discovery Channel, Bruyneel noted that the leadership will have to be decided during the race. "The competition of the Tour of California is going to be very high," Bruyneel said. "In my opinion, it is going to be a matter of having a very strong team with different candidates. There will be strong teams and it is not possible to control the whole race for one rider. It really does not matter who wins as long as it is a Discovery rider and we are going to bring a strong enough team to do that."
The Lance factor
As if new kits, new equipment, and new teammates weren't motivating enough, the team brought a certain seven-time Tour de France winner to the camp to give the riders a little extra boost. As a part-owner in the team, Lance Armstrong has a vested interest in keeping tabs on his former co-workers, and joined the first half of the five-hour ride through Los Padres National Forest where he 'motivated' the climbers by taking a head start over the first climb and making them chase. One person who was especially glad to have the presence of Armstrong was the man who rode side by side against Lance in his last Tour de France, Ivan Basso.
"I think when Lance is around the team he acts as a form of motivation for everyone," Basso said. "He is not a specific help in our goal to win the Tour de France but it is the small details like talking to us on the bike or having coffee together that make a big difference to our motivation. Lance is a very charismatic man with a lot of experience and this is how he helps the team."
One thing the team can expect to see is more of Armstrong. Unlike last year when he kept his distance from the squad, Lance will take more of an active role in the team in 2007. "Last year Lance was stepping away from cycling on purpose because he felt it was the only way to be able to retire and see what he wanted to do with his life," Bruyneel said. "This year it is different, he has on his own request actively participated in a lot of things with the team: The way we compose the team, he has been at the training camp in Austin, he is here in Solvang and he will be at other races this year."
"His role is not very specific but the fact that he still has the biggest name in cycling is definitely something that we can benefit from. Whether it is from a sponsorship standpoint, his experience to give to the riders or his charisma that he still has. The fact that he is here is definitely a motivating factor for the young riders. It is good to have him on board actively. My interaction with him is still very frequent and I consult a lot of decisions with him today."
For more on Discovery's rebirth with Ivan Basso and the Operación Puerto investigation click here for part II