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Tales from the Peloton
Presented by Berry Floor: US Postal's 2003 Classics squad
By Jeff Jones
The new name of the US Postal team has already been the subject of much discussion amongst Cyclingnews readers and staff: "United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team presented by Berry Floor" is a bit of a mouthful, even when shortened to "US Postal presented by Berry Floor". What is Berry Floor and why is it presenting the US Postal Service this year? Cyclingnews visited the US Postal Classics team presentation in Oudenaarde, Belgium late last week to find out more.
Although US Postal's primary objective each year is to win the Tour de France, the team has also grown stronger over the years and started to place more emphasis on the Vuelta España and the Spring Classics. For the last two years, US Postal riders have stood on the podium of the Vuelta, although not yet in the top spot. In the classics the team has had similar success, with George Hincapie the top rider, not forgetting Tom Boonen's impressive third in last year's Paris-Roubaix.
Team director Johan Bruyneel described it thus at the presentation. "As normal, our team will concentrate on the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain, but this year for the first time we have a major European sponsor for our team, Berry Floor, which puts more importance on our early season program. Amongst others, Omloop Het Volk, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, GP Waregem, and of course the World Cups such as the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix and the other classics."
It was Boonen's presence in the team last year that served as the catalyst for the Berry Floor sponsorship this season. Berry Floor is a Belgian company that specialises in laminate floor coverings, similar in fact to Quick-Step, which sponsors arguably the best classics team in cycling. Unfortunately for Berry Floor, at the end of 2002, Tom Boonen decided to jump ship mid-contract to Quick-Step, putting a hole in US Postal's classics plans. However the agreement with Berry Floor was in place, and US Postal filled the gap in its roster with ex-Domo rider Max van Heeswijk, who has already shown his worth with a fine second place in Het Volk.
Despite having no Belgians on its roster, no less than six of the team staff are Belgian: team directors Johan Bruyneel, Dirk Demol and Lorenzo Lapage; mechanics Julien DeVriese and Chris Van Roosbroeck; and chief soigneur Freddy Viaene. Of the riders, Van Heeswijk is probably the closest to being a Belgian (he is Dutch, but lives in Belgium), and Russian Guennadi Mikhailov also lives there, and came from a Belgian team, Lotto-Adecco. Viatcheslav Ekimov lives in Spain, but has years of experience in the Belgian classics, and so does the nominal classics captain George Hincapie, who said at the presentation that he "loves it here."
Bruyneel has three riders in mind for the classics, and they will come into their own as the season progresses. "We have a few racers in form at the moment, although we haven't had as an intensive pre-season planning as some of the other teams. George Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Max Van Heeswijk - these three can play a leading role in Het Volk and Kuurne and also the other classics."
On Paris-Roubaix Bruyneel said, "It's the race that Hincapie has wanted to win since he was a young boy. Hopefully he can win it this year. Normally he's not a quick starter... but by the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix he should be okay."
The rest of the team consists of giant tempo monsters Benoît Joachim (Lux), Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus) and Pavel Padrnos (Cze), as well as strong men Matthew White (Aus) and Antonio Cruz (USA) - truly a multicultural mix!
As for Lance Armstrong, "He'll come for Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - that's normally his main objective," said Bruyneel, who added that Armstrong was "feeling good", to the implied question of whether his recent separation from his wife Kristin had affected his morale.
"He's climbing well and he was good in December at the training camp," said Bruyneel, who believes that a Tour de France win is by no means assured. "Anything is possible. He's had a good preparation, while some of his rivals are less prepared, and some are better."
The quietly spoken American from Long Beach, California is a talented hard worker, and that's exactly what the US Postal classics team needs. He says that despite the bad weather, he likes it in Belgium. "I really do for some strange reason. I grew up in California and the weather's nothing like here. Most people in California enjoy the sun and the beach but for some reason I just like racing in the cold weather, it seems to bring out the best in my performance."
"I really dig the kasseien (cobbles). I think I like [Tour of] Flanders the best, because it's such a challenging race with all the bergs. I think you just have to be a super rider to win that race."
Cruz will put his personal ambitions aside to work for a team victory. "First of all I want to perform the best for the team," he said. "Every once in a while we have an opportunity to do something, go for your personal goals."
The evergreen Russian came back to US Postal mid-season last year, after a brief stint at managing the Russian Itera team. The 37 year old still very much believes in his own ability, despite his advancing years. "I'm in the oldest cyclist club," he admitted. "But I feel young, I feel okay. My age doesn't affect me, it doesn't kill my mind. Actually I feel good... I think my form is promising."
As to what races he is targeting this year, Ekimov replied that, "For sure my favourite is the Ronde. I think we have a very good team with George and Max, I think we're going to do well in these races."
Ekimov commented about his brief 'retirement' last year to manage a team. "You know I just had to make a choice. I tried to compare what it was like with a different kind of job. I didn't like it so much. You use probably more energy than when you were cycling, and your effort doesn't reflect that."
He has a contract with US Postal through the end of 2004, and his big goal next year is the Olympic Games in Athens. "I'll try to prepare myself for the Olympic Games. I would like to defend my title there."
Of course there is also the Tour de France. "Yeah, the Tour de France is one of my favourite races. I still like it. I would love to support Lance to win five times in a row. Like everybody, I will try to be there."
The team's stalwart classics rider for many years, George Hincapie, hopes to get closer to his goal of winning a big classic like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year. In the last four years, he has finished twice fourth and twice sixth in Roubaix, and certainly has the ability to make the podium. He also won Gent-Wevelgem in 2001 in a tight sprint finish with Leon van Bon.
He hopes to do better than last year in Paris-Roubaix, when he fell into a ditch while chasing Johan Museeuw together with his then teammate Tom Boonen. "I was very disappointed in that race," said Hincapie. "I was in a position that under different circumstances I could have got a bigger result. It took me some time to get over that mentally. To see how strong the team was and how I felt when the race started gives me hope for the future and it gives me a lot of motivation for the next several Paris-Roubaix and World Cups."
Last year, Hincapie had a good season but didn't win a race. "Thanks for reminding me," he said wryly. "I have to look at the positive things - I rode consistently throughout the year and I improved in a lot of things, and it gives me the morale to work hard."
This year, he has started on the back foot with sinus problems that have affected him. "I've been feeling a little weak but hopefully I'll start feeling better soon."
His favourite races are "definitely the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. The people who come out to watch, the history behind it, the difficulty of the races. There's nothing to compare to those two races - it would be a dream to win one of them."
In addition to that, he hopes to be on hand to help Lance Armstrong win his fifth Tour de France, and perhaps also ride in the World Championships in Hamilton, Canada. "I'd like to be around... It's in North America. It's not very often that we get them so I hope to be there."
Another one of the 'tall men' at 188 cm and 77 kg, the 27 year old Luxembourger in his fifth year with the team. The only blemish in his career has been a positive test for nandrolone in mid-2000, however he was later cleared by the Luxembourg federation on the grounds that he had used a contaminated supplement.
Joachim is an important part of the team's armoury for both the classics and the Tour. He said at the presentation that the Tour of Flanders and Het Volk are both very important races for the team, and that he will go "a bloc" [full on] for the classics.
The 29 year old Russian rider has joined the team from Lotto-Adecco, where he rode for two years. He is used to hard work, having ridden in the service of his friend Andrei Tchmil, and will no doubt be a valuable asset to the team. One of his more memorable moments came last year when he launched Tchmil to a stage win in the Tour of Belgium, in what turned out to be Tchmil's last ever race win. Nine days later, he won himself the fifth stage of the Tour of Luxembourg. During the Tour de France, Mikhailov was instrumental towards helping Robbie McEwen win the green jersey.
Guennadi Mikhailov lives in Bekkevoort, Belgium and is 187 cm tall and weighs 74 kg, another solid tempo man for the team.
Hailing from the small Czech town of Ostopovice, Pavel Padrnos is one of the biggest riders in the team at a towering 190 cm and 81 kg. He believes that the team can do "big things" and that he "hopes to do well in the classics." In the Tour de France, "I will be there, maybe."
Is he well known back home? "Ostopovice is a small village where I live and everybody knows each other," came the straightforward response. Does he miss it? A thoughtful "No," is the answer.
Max Van Heeswijk
Max van Heeswijk, the effervescent 30 year old Limburger, comes to US Postal from the Domo-Farm Frites team, where he spent two less than brilliant years under Patrick Lefevere. An Achilles problem and depression didn't help, but Max has already bounced back this season with a third place in Classic Haribo and second in Het Volk.
Van Heeswijk said that, "I feel really good here," and that he hoped to do well in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. He was the only rider able to bridge up to Museeuw's group on the Molenberg in Het Volk, and that shows he's got what it takes.
Sydney born and bred Matthew White now makes his home in Spain, along with many of the other Posties. Looking very lean and fit at the start of the season, White is hoping for a good one. In the past, White has been known for his incredibly long breakaway attempts in classics like Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. "Is that typically Australian or typically Matt White?" he was asked at the presentation.
"Typically me," was the reply. "With the other Australians we've got a lot of good sprinters like Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke and Stuart O'Grady, and some good climbers as well. I think it's more my style to be a little bit more aggressive and hopefully we'll see it from me in the classics this year."
White added that he has a "love-hate" relationship with the classics: "We love coming to Belgium to do those races but we hate doing them because they're so difficult. But they're so prestigious to win. To win a classic is what it's all about."
Images by Jeff Jones/Cyclingnews.com