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April 8, 2003
3 Days De Panne and Tour of Flanders
By Frankie Andreu

He won the race in the past and he wanted to try and win it again. Ekimov, for some reason, has always excelled in this race where most riders just cringe when they hear about it.

The Three Days DePanne covers many climbs in the Tour of Flanders, but also travels along the Western Belgian coast that carries in the strong crosswinds. If you add to the fact dodging cars, roundabouts, railroad tracks that go the same direction as the race, and rain, then you see whey most riders just buckle on the start line.

Pulling out at the start not because of nerves but because of bronchitis was Max Van Heeswijk. The team decided a little extra rest and antibiotics would be better preparation for Max than racing flat out for four days.

The race was not without it's controversy. Every year DePanne goes over the famous Kemmelberg climb. This is the same climb that is in Gent Wevelgem. This year the cold rain and wind made it a miserably long day. On top of that, the climb came with 100 km still left in the race.

As Matt White put it, "Every year guys get hurt on this climb. The stage was 235 km and it was 5 degrees and raining. The climb came half way through. It wasn't going to make a difference in the race. We just stopped at the bottom of the Kemmel for a couple of minutes and then went straight through town and back on the course. Finally, the riders were smart about something."

Matt may have finished DePanne, but he paid the price. He had to fly home after getting sick with bronchitis and fever. On the other hand, Eki only got stronger, placing 4th in the final T.T. and placing 5th overall. Matt commented on Eki's performance, "Eki is going real good but might lack a little of the big firepower to be there at the end. Max is going good and should be valuable in Flanders but especially Wevelgem. All of Johan Museeuw's talk is bull. Johan is flying."

Tour of Flanders

All the races Waregem, E3, Brabantse Pijl, 3 Days De Panne, have been leading toward one race, The Tour of Flanders. The team had a couple of last minute replacement riders flown in for guys who had become sick. Christian VandeVelde was flown in along with Victor Hugo Pena. Christian told me, "This is my fifth Tour of Flanders and I wasn't expecting to race. I trained really hard after Semana and figured I would get some rest this weekend. On Tuesday I have to start Circuit de la Sarth." I guarantee Christian didn't get much of a chance to rest this weekend. In fact, he was the first one to have a puncture only three kilometers after the start. As for Victor, Flanders would be his very first race in Belgium.

The leaders for Flanders for the Postal Service were Benoit Joachim, Eki, and Max. Because Max was sick last week, his form was questionable and even Max realized this fact "Flanders came a little bit too early. I was not recovered completely from my infection. At the start of DePanne I had bronchitis, but I stopped and hoped it was over before Flanders."

Max had hoped for the best, but in the end, he cut his losses and decided to wait for the races later in the week, "I indeed got stuck behind a motorcycle on the Koppenberg, but that wasn't too bad, because I was not feeling well and wanted to pull out anyway." With Max out of the race, the final sections of Flanders fell on Benoit and Eki.

Benoit noted, "In the last part of the race Eki and I were left in the bunch. Eki was the protected man but Dirk told us that we should try to take our chance in the last 60 km so I tried a few times. I think it makes it much easier racing from the front then chasing all day. Eki just missed being with the two first riders who made it to the finish. I think if we had our big boy, George, in the race, we could have done some big damage."

The two riders who made it to the finish were Peter VanPetegem and Frank Vandenbroucke, first and second respectively. Eki placed eighth while Benoit, after working his butt off all day, finished 31st in the group going for 20th.

This week, there is not much training for the riders. It's a lot of rest, ride, eat, and more rest. The races come so quick and fast that the only possibility of getting better is achieved more by resting than training. This Wednesday, April 9, is Gent Wevelgem. And Max has stated it plain and simple that he is holding nothing back, "I am not concentrating more on Gent-Wevelgem or Paris-Roubaix. I want to race them both well!"

Ekimov will probably concentrate more on Paris-Roubaix but only in certain conditions. Eki will not race the cobbles of Roubaix in the rain anymore. After skating through the rain and mud drenched cobbles three years ago, Eki said, "This is not bike racing. I'll never do this race again in the wet." He also said he was going to retire Time will tell.

April 16, 2003
Nothing beats the Classics
By Frankie Andreu

The peloton was already torn apart into three groups when the television footage first came on. The cold and the wind had taken its toll on the riders' legs. The bad part for the riders was that there were still 60 kilometers left. Included in this last part of the race were two ascents of the famous Kemmelberg climb. This is Gent Wevelgem.

In the first break of 26 riders, Quickstep had the most guys with five and the U.S. Postal Service had its best rider for the day with Max VanHeeswijk. Even before the first time up the Kemmelberg, the front group was under pressure from the chasing group that contained Ekimov and a host of Lotto-Domo riders and Rabobank riders.

This chase group was always within one minute of the leaders. The first time up the Kemmelberg, the front group started to shatter and as the strongest came to the front, Max was right there. The chasing group remained at one-minute, constantly putting pressure on the first group to ride, mainly Quickstep, which had the numbers.

The second time up the Kemmelberg, the pace was so fierce it became a drag race to see who could reach the top first. This acceleration dropped Mario Cippolini, who was favored to win. As Cippo got dropped from the lead group, 15 riders went up the road, again with Max sitting very comfortably.

On the descent, Cippo tried to return to the first group but on the sharp right hand turn at the bottom of the descent he crashed. In one corner, Cippo tried to make up about five seconds. It obviously didn't work. The front group was now 15 and in the rear, Lotto-Domo and Rabobank tried with no success to bring down the gap.

The front 15 worked together very well until 15 kilometers from the finish, when the attacks started quick and fast. Max responded to many attacks but once in awhile, you do have to rest and that was when the front group of five got away. Max told me, "I was feeling good, but not 100% at the end of the race. Once the break went I decided to just ride and save it for Paris-Roubaix."

The front riders attacked each other during the final kilometers, but they only ended up neutralizing one another. Andreas Klier (Telekom) won the final sprint. Freddy Vianee, the USPS massage therapist told me, "The racing has been very, very hard this spring. All day long they attack and they are going fast." This pretty much comes as no surprise especially since it is time for the classics. Johan Museeuw again was very, very strong but he was caught out by his teammates Tom Boonen and Servais Knaven, who made the break. Johan couldn't chase. All he could do was sit and wait. It will be interesting if the same problem arises in Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix

The day after Gent Wevelgem many teams went to ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix to check their condition. Dirk DeMol, the Postal Service's first director for the classics, decided he wanted his riders to rest instead. "I prefer the riders to be able to have a full day of rest. If you drive to the cobbles and then ride and have to drive home, it takes all day. It's not a rest day. I drove the entire section of cobbles and with the radio systems I'm confident I can pass on all the information that will be critical." Little did Dirk know how critical that information would turn out to be as Ekimov had the ride of his life in Paris-Roubaix.

At the start it only took 10 kilometers for the first big break to get away from the peloton in the 265 km race. Tony Cruz made that break and there was no way he was going to miss it, "I told Johan and Dirk last night that no matter what, I would be in the early break. It worked out perfectly."

Tony didn't realize how his race would transform after about 150 km, when his perfect race turned into a nightmare. "I flatted out of the break right after the forest and I realized I was not going to be able to catch them. I decided to float and wait a little. Then I crashed around a corner and after the next section of cobbles a guy crashed in front of me and I crashed again. All I knew was that I wanted to finish this damn race."

Tony was not the only rider who experienced bad luck. Many of the big names did not have a good day. Johan Museeuw flatted twice, Tafi flatted three times and crashed twice, Bortolami flatted an amazing five times, and these are only the stories from the top riders.

In Paris-Roubaix, bad luck spreads itself everywhere. It also affected the co-leader of the U.S. Postal Service, Max VanHeeswijk. "Two times I made it to the front group and then I flatted. The second time my tire flatted and I got caught in a groove and I crashed hard." During the race, Max proved he was one of the strongest as he literally dropped Museeuw off his wheel.

"The first group was a minute up and Johan was pulling on the front. I went by him and just rode him off my wheel. I had to bridge a one-minute gap by myself. I had good legs today." During the time that Max had to jump back and forth from group to group, Ekimov rode a tactically beautiful race.

This came as no surprise to the team's director, Dirk. "All week Eki has been very, very focused for Paris-Roubaix. He kept asking what the weather would be for the race. The day before the race he just wanted to go and ride by himself. I've never seen him like this before." Eki and Max were the leaders on the road and early in the race it was evident that the two riders had good legs. They made the cobbled roads look smooth. In the final sections, the peloton started to split, and at one time there were 10 riders up the road with no US Postal riders. A couple of kilometers later, Eki had changed that and a few kilometers after that Max appeared.

The team was in great shape as they and only Telekom had two riders in the front group. This was when Max's bad luck struck and at about the same time Pieri (Saeco) and Aldag (Telekom) went up the road. Eki felt this move was going to the finish and that was when he made his move.

"I had very good legs and I had to do a huge effort to catch the two in front. I didn't attack so much to catch them as to attack the race. It was time to go." In the final two sections, Eki was able to power away from Pieri. Aldag was already dropped, but fast in the hunt was Peter VanPetegem.

Out of the last hard section, the three joined, Pierri, VanPetegem, and Ekimov. They entered the velodrome together as they prepared for the final sprint.

Ekimov noted, "I had the track experience so I waited. I knew VanPetegem was strong. I tried to go on the banking but my legs were dead. I am very happy to be on the podium today. I hope this gives inspiration to the boys to do well at the next classics, especially Lance."

Peter VanPetegem won the race with Pieri second and Ekimov third. As Paul Sherwen put it, "Peter was the fastest, Pieri was the strongest and Eki was the smartest."

Sea Otter

It's a race, it's not a race, and it's sort of a race. This is how the start of Sea Otter took place. To come from Euopean racing and then have to participate in a race that isn't a race on your very first day would play havoc with any European pro.

For Kenny Labbe and Robbie Ventura, this was their first race of the season and from Kenny's remarks, maybe it was good that the race was neutralized. "Stage one was a good course, but there were cars on the road, and the riders all stuck together. We decided we wouldn't race because it was too dangerous. If they pull it off next year, it shouldn't be stage one. The GC will be shattered immediately."

Before the start of Sea Otter the team had decided what their goals would be for the race. Michael Barry explained the team's mindset. "Sea Otter was a rebuilding race for the team that we had there. We had all either been injured or sick or, in Kenny and Robbie's case, it was their first race. We didn't really know what to expect and our goal going into the event was to race hard and try for victories in the stages."

The stage that set Postal up for their 4th place in G.C. was David Zabriskie's individual time trial. Johan had expected this. "David was riding very strong when he left Europe. There were a couple of times when he attacked and it was impressive. He should do well at the races."

With Zabriskie securing 4th place overall, Michael Barry talked about how he used the race as a test. "Damon Kluck and I attacked and raced very aggressively. Our goal was to get stronger and to go for a stage win. When the attacks didn't stick, I gave it a go in the sprints. At the end of the week I was feeling stronger, healthier and felt as if the team was progressing toward our next goal ,which is the Tour of Georgia."

Next week the team will add Tony Cruz and Roland Green to help with the horsepower during the Tour of Georgia.

April 25, 2003
Only a sign of things to come.
By Frankie Andreu

The next goal for the team after a fantastic Paris-Roubaix was the Amstel Gold race. This race was usually held last in the spring classics campaign but this year it was changed to one week earlier.

The usual order of Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, Leige-Bastogne-Liege, Amstel was changed to Roubaix, Amstel, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

The meaning of this is that Lance's usual focus on the Amstel Gold race will now have more focus on Leige-Bastogne-Leige. Johan explained this to me, "In the past, Lance's objective was Amstel because it was the last spring classic. This year Amstel will be important, but Leige is now the last spring classic."

The Amstel Gold team consisted of Lance, Eki, Benoit, Heras, Victor Hugo, Rubiera, VandeVelde, and Max. A few of the riders are doubling up from Paris-Roubaix to Amstel, but instead of riding in a leadership role, they rode in a support role.

Coming off his fantastic ride at Paris-Roubaix Max Van Heeswijk said, "The Amstel did not go well for me. I'm tired from last week and my shoulder hurt a lot. The team was very good and Lance was great."

Benoit who also raced last week pretty much said the same, "I didn't feel good at Amstel. I only tried to help as much as possible." The rider who did feel good and every year shows his legs are getting stronger and stronger, was Lance, who placed eighth. Perhaps, from Johan's earlier statement, next week at Leige we will see Lance step it up another notch

Back home here in America, the Postal Service just started the Tour de Georgia. This is a six-day stage race through the heart of Georgia. The first day in Savannah started off with a prologue through the downtown streets of the city.

Maybe a sign of things to come - Michael Barry was the first rider to start the prologue. Obviously, he posted the fastest time but where the first riders usually drop off to the back of the list, Michael managed to stay right near the top with his fast time. David Zabriskie and Roland Green also rode a great time trial, managing the very twisty and short 2.5 mile course with ease.

Taking the yellow jersey was Nathan O'Neil from Saturn, who then had to defend the jersey the following day over 136 miles. On this day the race started off with three circuits and three primes of $1,000 on each lap.

Needless to say, all hell broke loose. The pace was over 50 km/hr, there were crashes all over the place and the peloton split up temporarily after only 10 kilometers. Things did calm down and then the riders proceeded to roll steadily towards the finishing circuits.

As Tony Cruz put it, "I couldn't believe we could ride so slow at times. I looked down and saw 28 or 27km/hr. I was ready to fall asleep." As in every race, the finals are always hard. This stage saw three 3.5 km circuits with a one-kilometer hill and one kilometer descent.

Needless to say, it was screaming fast and even though there were time gaps, none of the G.C. riders for the team lost any time. The team's new recruit for this race, Roland Green, has been riding very strong. His mountain bike background, and strength from mountain biking, will make a difference when the race hits the mountains.

At this point in the race, patience is the key. There is a long way to go. The Tour de Georgia will end in Atlanta on Sunday but the race will most likely be decided on Saturday in the northern mountains of Georgia.

Every rider has his own way to prepare for certain races. Some are planned and some are not. When Tony Cruz returned form Paris-Roubaix, the airlines lost his bike. Of course, as the airlines always tell you, the bike was supposed to arrive the next day. Of course, as always, it didn't. Actually, his bike took a trip to New Zealand.

Tony had to spend three days training on his wife's mountain bike, while he tried to recover from Paris-Roubaix. When his bike did finally arrive, he rode for two days and then flew to Savanah, GA, for the start of the Tour de Georgia. At the luggage claim he again was told that his bike was only checked to Atlanta and he would have to wait to get it. This time getting a road bike was not a problem, the bonus of having a team truck.

Next up will be the finish of the Tour de Georgia and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

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