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February 15, 2003
Coming up to speed.
By Frankie Andreu

For many, the 2003 cycling season has already begun. The Tour Down Under, Mallorca, Etoile de Besseges, and the Tour de Langkawi are just a few big-time races that have already taken place.

This week the U.S. Postal Service team will start off its season doing two programs, a five-day stage race in Algarve Portugal and the five-day Tour of Mediterranean. This will be the team's second return to Portugal after starting a very successful 2002 program there. The old adage "If it's not broken why fix it?" might apply here.

One aspect that the team did change for 2003 was its 10-day training camp location. This year saw the Postal Service return to an old stomping ground near Santa Barbara, CA.

For those of you lucky enough to be riding around the Solvang area, you perhaps saw a shot of red, white and blue shooting past. In addition to the usual five to six hour days, the team tackled most of the area's toughest climbs.

As Christian VandeVelde put it, "I've ridden here a bunch of times, but the mountains seemed longer this year. Especially Gibraltar." This assessment was coming from a guy who already has over 6,000 km in his legs since the start of December.

Christian knows that as his kilometers start to add up, his spring goals of trying to win Fleche Wallone and/or Liege-Bastogne-Leige will become a reality. He also joked about how hard the last day of camp was. The riders found themselves after 5.5 hours of training a little late heading back toward home.

So Johan and Dirk split the group into two groups behind two different cars and motor paced at over 75km/hr for the last half-hour. Somewhere along the way the oldest team member, Olympic Gold Medallist Viatcheslav Ekimov, showed he still has what it takes by bridging from one vehicle to the next. Talk about some horsepower!

For some of the new guys it was the same old thing but in a new environment. For old pros like Max Van Heeswijk and Guennadi Mikhailov, the main difference with this training camp was that they were wearing different colors.

For new riders like Damon Kluck, camp was about learning a new system and new teammates. Damon said, "I had a great time at camp and I felt great, but now I've been pretty tired."

Michael Barry noted, "Last year I didn't know what to expect. It was nice going to camp this year and knowing what was going to happen." Knowing what to expect can make all the difference in the world in a rider's comfort level. "The camp had a very positive atmosphere," Michael said, "and I look forward to helping the team gain victories." Besides being the workhorse, Michael will concentrate on his European hometown race, the Tour of Catalonia, and the new Tour of Georgia.

Sometimes California's great weather can be very tempting. It can draw you in and never let you leave. This is especially true if you are coming from somewhere that has harsher conditions, like Greenville, SC, or Texas.

Both Lance and George extended their training camps to remain in California to benefit from the weather — and in Lance's case — better mountains then Texas. George put in an extra week and Lance stuck it out for two extra weeks. George just returned home to Greenville with enough time to unpack his training camp suitcase and pack his Euro suitcase for his flight two days later.

For half the team, the first races start with the Tour of the Med, from Feb 12-16. This group will include Cruz, Eki, Joachim, Kjaergaard, Padrnos, Van Heeswijk, and White. They will follow this race two days later with three one-day races: The Tour of Lagiuella, the hilly and very hard Tour of Haut Vaur, and the dead flat sprinters dream, the Tour of Haribo.

This team is considered the classics team, with the exception of George, who joins the group once they head north to Belgium for the start of the Belgium races — Het Volk and Kurne-Brussles-Kurne.

The other half of the team, which starts with Portugal, contains Barry, Hincapie, Kluck, Mikhailov, Pena, Rubiera, VandeVelde and Zabriskie. This group, except Hincapie and Mikhailov, could be considered the stage racers. Their goals are further down the road and they have more time to sharpen their fitness.

If you are wondering about the two Tour captains, Lance and Roberto Heras, they join the squad at the start of Murcia in Spain March 5-9.

The results and action should start coming mighty quick as the European peloton tests each rider's legs to see who is ready for the start of the season. Many times in these early races it somehow seems that no matter how much work you did in the winter it never was enough. This is mainly brought on by the fact that by riding a constant five or six hours every day the body is missing the speed, accelerations, and intensity brought on by racing.

But never fear, with over 100 races scheduled for most riders, there is plenty of time to come up to speed.

February 25, 2003
As you head north, it only gets hotter!
By Frankie Andreu

No matter what you call the early season races, they still hold a great deal of importance to many riders and teams. For some it's considered training or preparation, but the significance of having a good start in the season cannot be underplayed. The morale of the team, the cohesiveness of the team, and the pressure on the team are all directly proportionate to results.

The US Postal Service is by far having their best season's start this year. Showing signs of great form are Michael Barry, Ekimov, Benoit Joachim, Max Van Heeswijk, and Victor Hugo Pena. These very early signs of results are an indication that the team is not just sitting around waiting for the Tour de France. They are ready to race now and different riders are stepping up to make their mark.

How would you like to show up in Europe and for your very first race back in the saddle have to go over two of the most famous climbs in Italy? The Cipressa and Poggio, the two climbs from the World Cup race Milan San Remo, were introduced to the riders during the first stage of the Tour of Med.

As Tony Cruz put it, "Both the Cipressa and Poggio are fast hard climbs…a little rude to have in the first set of races. Overall though, I think that the Tour of the Med is a good race for me to start with." On the other hand Tony said that Trofeo Lagueglia was very tough and instead of struggling on the uphills he is having some difficulties on the descents.

"I've had a bit of a struggle though to get that aggressive fighting spirit back. I noticed too that I'm a little more timid with my descending since crashing at the Vuelta. Things are getting back to normal one stage at a time." Tony is not the only one realizing this dilemma. As Benoit explains, "I can almost follow the best riders on the climbs so that is the good news. The bad news is that I can't make it downhill with the best riders and I always get dropped on certain descents in the final when they go down nuts." Benoit told me that he is very happy with his form right now. As another rider put it, "Benoit and Eki are flying on the climbs. They are making it look easy."

It may make you wonder why certain riders might not be able to keep up on descents. David Zabrisikie found out first hand as he injured his knee on the first stage of the Tour of Algarve. "On the downhill the rider in front of me bumped somebody and overreacted. They fell right in front of me and it was too fast to react. It's not that bad and I should be riding in a few days. It just sucks a little bit."

Impressions like these don't just disappear the next time you are flying down a descent at 70km/hr. David's knee is doing better and he is back on the bike, but this year has already seen some of the Postal guys with problems. Christian VandeVelde has had a bit of a bad back. After training camp, Mikhailov was involved in a traffic accident, hurting his knee. Floyd Landis has a broken hip. And George has had a bout of sinusitis and has been taking antibiotics for 10 days.

Even on antibiotics George said the Tour of Algarve was actually pretty easy for him, "easier than training." George said he took it very easy and even cruised the time trial but still finished in the top 15. George also told me he is not looking forward to next weekend's big Belgian races Het Volk and Kurne Brussles Kurne. However, I'd say if George gets off his antibiotics, then it might be the other riders' who won't be looking forward to the races.

While George will be heading up the classics program, we should keep a good eye out for Victor Hugo Pena in the Tour of Murcia on March 5-9. Victor won this race last year and will be extra motivated to defend his title. Adding to his motivation will be the fact that he has super form right now after finishing 2nd overall at the Tour of Algarve.

The time trial is always the truest test of ones fitness and the US Postal Service's placing of four riders in the top sixteen is a testament of the team's strength. And finally getting a chance to turn their race pedals for the first time are Lance and Roberto who will join Barry, Kjaergaard, Kluck, Pena, Rubiera, VandeVelde, and Zabriskie in Murcia.

The first races have come to an end and the assumption of letting the riders find their legs also has passed. As the riders head North to Belgium for Het Volk and Kurne-Brussles-Kurne, March 1 and 2, the demand for results will now be seen on their faces, because as soon as the first Belgian races are over, the high profile races start to take place: Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San-Remo, and the classics.

These races are approaching fast and teams are not willing to wait to find out in what shape their teams are. The US Postal Service is off to a great start, but now the heat really starts to turn up.

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