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May 1, 2003|
One less kilometer, One less bump.
By Frankie Andreu
In the final stages of the Tour of Georgia, the race for the win finally started to take shape. Early on the sprinters were taking advantage of the close time gaps to leap frog up the standings from their time bonuses.
One rider taking full advantage of the 10-second finish line bonuses was Freddy Rodriguez. What started off as a slow TOG for him turned into a blazing one as he won two stages.
Freddy's first stage win came on a rain-soaked 120-mile route with a deceivingly hard final circuit. The course profile for the final circuits made it look like a bump, but in reality it was a steep, steep wall where the riders had to use their 39x23. The difficult last 10 kilometers finally allowed the U.S. Postal Service to show their strength as they attacked aggressively, going for the stage win.
Michael Barry was on fire as he repeatedly tried escaping from the group. The final time up the wall, Michael escaped but a determined Chris Horner, from Saturn, sat on the front and reeled him in.
This set up a mass sprint of 30 riders and Tony Cruz was on the perfect wheel. "I was on Roland and we moved up to the front. In the final kilometer everyone was going nuts and Roland's bars got swiped. He almost went down. I tried coming around the outside, but I started a little too far back because I lost Roland early." Tony placed third, just a half bike length from the win.
The following day was the make-or-break day for the race It was the mountain day. From the start, the team put the pressure on the riders by sending Floyd Landis up the road in a five-man break. Floyd told me, "It was great being in the break. I felt good, so I just kept rolling with it, I thought we would make it to the top of the second climb."
The break did stay away for over 80 miles but they were caught at the base of the last six-mile climb. This was when Saturn jumped to the front to shatter the field. In previous races, the Saturn train would decimate the group leaving the Saturn boys to fight among themselves for the win.
This mountain day would prove a different story. Over the top, there were three Saturn riders (Horner, Danielson, O'Neil), but there also were three Postal riders (Zabriskie, Barry, Green) and Freddy Rodriguez and a Flanders rider. Floyd just missed making the front group, "When the group caught me I tried to go with them and I was only about 300 meters off them at the top. I was so close."
Behind the front group of eight there was a large chase group of 30. The determination of the front group won out, despite a full out chase by Prime Alliance, as they stayed away toward the finish. In the final kilometers the Postal boys took turns attacking to try to win the stage. "I attacked a few times but the Saturn guys kept chasing me down. I felt good but I just couldn't get away," David commented. The sprint was won by Freddy Rodriguez who picked up another 10-second time bonus, pushing him up to fourth overall and the remote possibility of winning the entire race.
The final stage was in Atlanta and if Freddy won every time sprint and Chris Horner received no time bonuses then Freddy could win the TOG. This was only a short-lived dream as Horner would have no part in Freddy's game plan and placed third in the first bonus sprint, ending Freddy's dream.
The Postal Service had riders in third, fifth, and sixth in the overall classification. Besides just trying to keep those positions, they were also looking for a stage win. During the race the team was active, controlling the breakaways, but in lap four disaster struck. As Dave Bloch, the team's souigneer told me, "Roland said that he got his tire stuck in a large seam in the road and it just stopped.
He looks very bad, like Mike Tyson beat the heck out of him. At first they thought his collarbone and the top of his eye socket might be broken but it's not. He got out of the hospital yesterday but when I was taking him to the airport this morning, Roland mentioned that his hand might be broken." After five hours in the hospital yesterday, I would have figured one of the doctors might have figured that out instead of Roland discovering the problem.
Because of Roland's crash the team lost third place in the standings but came out of the race on a positive note. David Zabrsikie said, "I was nervous coming into the race because I was not sure how my form was going to be. I was happy to make the front group on the mountain stage and after that I felt more confident. I think I have good form for when I go back to Europe next week."
Floyd also was uncertain what to expect, "I wasn't sure how I would be with the stages so long but each day I got better. I never raced before without being really fit, so it was different. I only have about 3,500 km's this year including this race. I feel good, but we will see when I go to 4 days of Dunkerque."
Another rider scheduled to return to Europe but who is still questionable is George Hincapie. After not feeling well for months George now has been able to put in three-hour quality rides. George and the team will make a decision soon about his return, depending on how his training has been and how he is feeling.
What a difference a few kilometers can make — or the hesitation of a couple riders — in the outcome of a race. Leige-Bastogne-Leige is a true one-day classic for the elite climbers of the world. The climbs are long enough to get rid of the weak but not long enough to isolate only a few riders off the front.
Tactics, and a little luck, play a large part in determining the winner on the final climbs toward the finish in Leige. Lance is no stranger to Leige. Before he started his Tour de France run, Lance had placed second in Leige-Bastogne-Leige on two different occasions. This year he wanted to move that position up one spot. The Postal Service started the race in great position, with Victor Hugo Pena representing the team in the early break. This immediately took pressure off the team for the first half of the race.
The second half was a different story. Christian commented about his race, "Liege was the worst feeling that I've had for a long time. I injured myself on Thursday and wasn't near my best for Liege." Not only did Christian feel for himself, he also was very aware of what happens when the team is not 100 percent healthy. "Lance was left by himself with a long time to go. It was really depressing to feel so helpless," Christian said.
Sometimes when you are alone in a group, the best move is to attack, and that is what Lance did. On the hardest climb in the race, La Redoute, Lance killed everyone. He charged up the road, trying to get a large gap before the final climb. But when a four- time winner of the Tour de France attacks, I guarantee riders react. They knew better than to let Lance get a big gap, and the group caught him near the bottom of the final climb.
After a little cat and mouse, Tyler took advantage of still having good legs, and the others watching each other, to slide up the road. His attack with two kilometers to the finish was enough to hold off the others and be the first American to win Leige-Bastogne-Leige.
Lance finished in 20th, but that fact was not important to Johan "The race was good but the result didn't show it. Lance was very strong and it was very close at the end." Christian also noted that, "This team is built for June and July, but Leige was ugly. We'll be super in the coming months, especially after that wakeup call."
Racing always has its ups and downs and many times those curves are uncontrollable. A rider's fitness is so fine-tuned that the difference between feeling great, getting injured, sick, or wining is a very fine line. Sometimes you never know what might make you or break you. In a way, this alone is what makes July so much more remarkable — Lance's ability to not find the trouble that so often finds others.
May 17, 2003
Do you ever wonder, during the season, when the riders take a break? Doesn't it feel like there is never a rest in the schedule?
Well, this month is about as close to a vacation of R&R as you can get as a pro. Between the Tour of Georgia and the 4 days of Dunkerque the riders had a whopping 10 days off. The riders that did the Ardeenes classics, like Amstel and Leige-Bastogne-Leige, have had a full two weeks to recover and prepare for their next race — The Tour of Belgium.
It may not seem like much but when you are used to racing day in and day out, those few days of not racing seem like a luxury.
Most of the riders were able to fly home for a few days after the Tour of Georgia before they had to zip off to northern France for the 4 Days of Dunkerque that lasted six days. (It must be French thing)
At the start of the race it didn't seem like much was happening but the Postal guys were just waiting for the road to turn upward. On the hardest stage, stage 4, the peloton exploded on the climbs and David Zabriskie flew to the front. David placed 5th, while Matt White placed 11th and Michael Barry finished 13th.
The following stage was the T.T. and Zabriskie, finally feeling confident about his condition, blazed to 8th place, only 48 seconds back of the winner. At the end of the six stages Zabriskie stayed in 5th overall. Matt White commented on his final placing of seventh, "I'm pretty happy with the form. I trained very well in Tenerife. I was there on my own training hard, but it was quite boring. Now I might have Belgium, but definitely Philly. I'm very keen to do a ride in the states. It's been too long!"
While a few of the Postal riders got results at Dunkerque, a few others seem to be sharing a common problem — injuries. Damon Kluck, who had to retire on the first day, explained, "Things aren't going so good. I am in Belgium for the moment and I have some appointments set up with a keniesiologist. Hopefully he will be able to help me with my leg. I'm having trouble pedaling in a full circle. I'm staying positive and I'm sure everything will work out. If all goes well I will be in Philly."
Christian VandeVelde also is still in the process of rehabilitating, "I've been in Belgium this week trying to get this leg thing sorted out. I've been seeing this guru guy named Lieven. I've been doing all sorts of exercises that are supposed to wake up and stimulate muscles that haven't been working properly. I'm having a coordination problem and hopefully it should be fixed with some strength exercises." The next race for Christian is the Tour of Belgium that starts May 21 and the next race for Damon will be Philly.
The Tour of Belgium, May 21-25, also will mark the return of George Hincapie after a long hiatus from racing. George told me he is excited to get back to racing, but also a little nervous
"It's weird going over to Europe out of shape," Hincapie said, but I think I am healthy again. I believe it's only a matter of time now until I'm good again. I am going to race the Tour of Belgium, and then maybe the Dauphine."
This year will mark the first time in many years that George will miss the US Pro Championships in Philly. Because of his illness, George has missed many races early on and will now have to start concentrating on racing stage races to regain his fitness and his ability to recover day after day.
Because he missed the first part of the season, you could consider that George is playing a game of catch up. If that is the case, then Lance is preparing to play a game of destroyer.
Lance will now only have one race on his mind until the start of July, the Tour de France. He will start to look at the courses of the Tour, the TT's of the Tour and the competition of the Tour. He will watch races and riders to get an idea of who is going well and who is not. Lance's next race is not until June 8th, the Dauphine, where he will actually be able to truly judge his condition.
The team just finished its first training camp of the Tour, or as Johan put it, "pre camp-training camp." This pre-camp was held not only to look at the roads but also to introduce the team's new recruit to the Postal Service way of doing things.
Last week the team signed the talented climber Manuel Beltran from team Coast. "When Coast first was suspended Beltran contacted us but we didn't pursue it. When I found out about the second suspension, I contacted Beltran to see if he still wanted to come to the team," Johan said. He added, "This gives us better depth for the mountains. We already have Rubiera, Heras, and if things keep going well, also Floyd. He is a very good climber and will be a big help for the Tour."
Beltran's first race with the team will be at the Dauphine, and along with Lance, this will be an early indication of the team's form for July. Still though, there are three weeks until the start of the Tour, and it would be nice if there were a window where we could watch Lance's training, see his dedication, and feel his sacrifices so that we could truly understand what it takes to win a Tour de France.
May 29, 2003
As months and months pass through the racing season, many riders are still looking, waiting, and hoping to find some results.
Michael Rogers (Quickstep), the winner of the Tour of Belgium, was preparing for this race specifically for a long time. Axel Merckx carried over his fitness from the classics to wear the leader's jersey for a few days.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is George Hincapie, who had not raced in two months. In his very first race back, George placed in the front of the peloton at 26th. Early in the race George told me how it was going, "The legs have been ok, but it is hard starting off here racing in Belgium. They have been racing really fast from the gun, in crosswinds all day. I feel healthy and I just need to gain my fitness back. But for the most part everything is going good."
As the race progressed, George was not the only Postal rider going strong. Matt White commented, "Hey mate, I'm well, happy with the legs, especially seeing that I punctured and then crashed and still came back on the last stage. I just couldn't go with them on St Nicholas."
St. Nicholas is one of the famous last climbs from the World Cup Leige-Bastogne-Leige. Even before that very hard last stage, the scene was already set for the Postal riders. In the ever demanding time trial, which never lies about fitness, the postal riders had three guys in the top 20 and George was the highest, placed in 10th. George finished the race 7th overall, "I was definitely surprised! About a month ago I went out for a 30-min. ride and I couldn't ride anymore. That was my lowest point. I was pretty depressed after that. Since then it seemed like I started getting my health back. But I definitely felt better at Belgium then I thought I would." George will now tackle Catalonia, June 16-22, which will be the next and final test for his qualification for the Tour team.
While some riders are preparing for more European races, the biggest races in America are about to take place: the Wachovia race series, or US Pro National Championships. There are three races, Lancaster, Trenton, and Philly, with all the marbles resting on the results from Philly.
Saturn is the favorite because of their results from all spring but the other teams will be out for revenge. The Postal riders will consist of Barry, Cruz, Kjaergaard, Kluck, Labbe, VanHeswijk, Ventura, and White. And just because some of the guys are from Europe doesn't mean they aren't ready to race. "I come to Philly this week and I'm showing some good legs. When you got 'em use 'em, and I'd love to win Philly !' said Matt White.
David Zabriskie, who had great form was, on the list, but had to withdraw after hitting a car while training. Actually I'm not sure if he hit the car or the car hit him, but either way he has a broken leg. David will be out for a few weeks while he recovers from the operation to fix his leg.
This week we'll see the best from America shine and next week we'll wait to see some of the best from Europe shine. The Dauphine Libere, June 8-15, will be the first Tour de France test for Lance and his teammates. It will also see Manual Beltran fly the Postal colors for the first time.
I remember racing against Beltran when he was on Banesto and we gave him a nickname, "the bus driver." This was because of the way he quacked riders and always seemed to get in the way and get in front of wherever you were trying to get.
As Lance put it, "Yep, he's a quacker for sure ... but it's better to have the quackers on our team! The little guy can climb though," thus underlying the real reason the team took him. Not to get in the other riders' way but to drop them.
This week also saw the finish of the Giro and possibly a few Tour challengers to Lance. Also from June 4-8th is Bicecleta Vasca, in Spain, which will see the start to the Spanish riders' preparation for the Tour de France.
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