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June 9, 2003
Philly Week — you just never know.
By Frankie Andreu

It started getting dark almost immediately. The debate about whether the riders should use clear glasses or dark glasses was not even discussed. The clouds rolled in and the rain poured down.

Standing on the start line, some of the riders were already debating on when to quit. The first lap, the second lap -- there were many who wanted no part in this race. Lancaster, the first race in the Wachovia race week, is the toughest race of the week.

With the addition of cold temperatures and the pouring rain, the selection between the strong teams and the weaker teams only became more evident. Of the 168 riders that started only 20 finished and many teams didn't finish any riders.

The rain played a part in killing the morale of many riders, but what really killed them was the rapid pace of the race. Christian VandeVelde told me, "This race is always hard, and it's the hardest of the week. It was so fast, and I can't believe there were only three minutes difference between last year's winning time and this year's."

Many of the Postal guys just arrived from Europe to get ready for this race. "I didn't have good legs. I'm just trying to ride in to this. I don't know why, but the rain killed me," commented Benoit after the finish of Lancaster.

The rain seemed to have no affect on CSC's Jacob Pill, the eventual winner. Jacob attacked hard with two laps remaining and the effect shattered the peloton. There were groups everywhere chasing different groups. "I had to chase for about a half-lap on the front to try and get Michael (Barry) across to the front group," commented Christian.

"After Michael made it I was riding at the front and I saw Max VanHeeswijk attack. I thought, Where does he think he's going? A little later he made the front group also." I spoke with Max and he told me about his decision to attack, "I knew the front group was going away so I knew I didn't have a choice if I wanted to try and win. I just decided to go for it and see what happened. I had great legs and actually made it there pretty easy."

The final part of the race saw the front group of nine that contained Max, Mike, and Matt White split up a couple more times. At the finish, Pill won solo while Matt White finished fourth behind two speedsters, Mark McCormack, and Julian Dean.

Trenton probably saw as opposite a race as humanly possible compared to Lancaster. The course had great weather, it was dead flat, and crazy, crazy fast. This year's race barely saw any attacks that gained more than 10 seconds. The peloton was usually in one long line screaming up the road at 45 mph. and instead of riders going off the front of the peloton, riders were coming off the back.

Each lap the whiplash effect from the corners became worse as riders couldn't hold their wheels in front of them. The final laps, CSC pretty much took control to set up the final sprint. Coming out of the last corner were 150 riders chomping at the bit and doing anything they could to move up to the front for a chance for the win.

The fastest turned out to be Julian Dean (CSC) who has won here once before. Tony Cruz told me about the final, "It was very fast and I just followed wheels in the sprint. I didn't want to take a chance of crashing, it was such a big group." Tony also mentioned that Max was not very interested in the sprint: "We never really got organized and Max didn't feel the best. He also didn't want to get tangled up in anything before Sunday." Of course, "Sunday" meaning the prestigious US PRO Championships. The Trenton race covered 90 miles in two hours and 55 minutes. Try that at home!

PHILLY

In 18 years, the Philly race has never seen rain. This year, by one day, the race again stayed dry. This is not to say that the organizers didn't have a scare. The day before the race it rained so hard and for so long that contingency plans for the race course had to be made.

Kelly Drive, which runs along the race course, was inches from being totally flooded. The city actually installed pumps along the road to pump out any water that was accumulating from the river overflowing its banks. Luckily, as always, the rain stopped on race day, but this year the sun did not shine.

The start was cloudy and cool and the overcast skies settled in for the long duration. The cooler temperatures actually made a huge difference in the outcome of the race. In past years the heat alone, after six hours on a bike, is what cracks riders. This year heat exhaustion, cramping, and dehydration were not a factor.

Even though certain conditions may change, one thing is for sure - attacks from the gun. Immediately, a break of four went up the road with a Saturn, Prime Alliance, Navigator, and CSC rider. The main missing ingredient in this break, as they built up a six-minute lead, was a Postal Service rider.

This was when Kenny Labbe came into play, riding in his first U.S. Championship. Kenny was sent to the front to prevent the break from taking too much time and to allow the break to fatigue from the kilometers on the front. Kenny, almost alone, prevented the break from taking anything over six minutes and rode the strongest race of his career.

This allowed all the rest of the Postal guys to remain as fresh as possible for the final ascents up the wall. With three laps to go, the peloton was still 150 riders strong and this was when the team decided to try and break the race apart. On the wall, Christian VandeVelde led the attacks as he tried to split up the resting peloton.

"The race was real negative. No one wanted to do anything, so we tried to get things going to make it hard. Every time the groups came back together, no one else attacked," Matt White commented. The second to last time up the wall, again Postal Service tried to put pressure on the peloton, but because of the steady and relatively relaxed race, everyone could respond rapidly. The peloton would split into three different huge groups but each time the chasing groups always managed to catch the front group.

The final time up the wall Mike Barry roared to the top, taking maybe five to six guys with him. The danger was immediately sensed and again the groups re-joined as about 100 riders prepared to enter the final three finishing circuits. Never have I seen such a large group racing the final circuits together. The team had everyone in the front group except for Kenny and Robbie Ventura who had to retire earlier from their work chasing the early break.

You might think that once you made it to the final circuits, your problems were over, but nothing could be farther from the truth. VandeVelde flatted in the final circuits and kissed his chances good-bye as the peloton raced away at 60 km/hr. David Clinger (Prime Alliance) ripped off his rear derailleur -and had to finish on Jonathon Vaughters bike after a quick bike change.

Brice Jones (7-UP) flatted with one lap to go and the most noticeable hiccup in the final laps was Jacob Pill, CSC's strong man, who broke his chain with two small laps remaining.

I say the biggest hiccup because this was one of Julian Dean's strongest leadout men for the final sprint and one of the strongest riders in the race. Even with riders going back and forth to the front, the peloton was racing flat out at a blistering pace to the finish.

Coming into the final two kilometers, it became evident Saeco was heading up the charge to the sprint. The dash to the line was 50 strong and the powerhouse sprinter from Saeco, Steffano Zanini, timed his sprint perfectly. The second place rider, Uros Murn, flew past Zanini on the line and raised his hands in victory. The only problem was that the finish line wasn't two feet later, as Murn had hoped.

Zanini was the victor, Murn was second, Julian Dean was third, Mark McCormack (first American) fourth, and Max Van Heeswijck took fifth. Max was disappointed with his fifth place. " I had good legs, but I got boxed in during the final meters. I couldn't get out and that cost me the race." Max was not the only one to get shuffled out of position. Freddy Rodriguez was rumored to do some hands off the handlebar moves at 500 meters to the line. Any time there is a title on the line there will always be elbows flying.

Sideline stuff

The Navigator team car received some custom "guardrail pin striping" during the race.

The Sierra Nevada car, driven by Mike Neel, almost made a hospital run. At the bottom of Lemon Hill one of his riders had flatted and the rider was standing on the side of the road with his bike in his hand. Mike came up at about 60mph and then started to lock it up to try and stop on time. Luckily the rider was watching what was happening and jumped back out of the way as the car went spot on to where he was standing.

Health Net finally made it into the race. A lawsuit with one of Health Net's riders and the race organizers had kept the team from racing any of the previous races. Because the Philly race was a National Championship the organizers decided to let the Americans on the team race for their national title.

They might as well have stayed home. The very first lap, their team leader, Mike Sayers, flatted and the entire team had to drop back and do a team chase to try and catch up before the wall. The following lap the same thing happened and again they had to do a huge chase. More incredible is that Sayers finished 10th in the race.

After the Philly race, all of the riders flew back to Europe. I'm talking about immediately. They flew back the same day of the race. After getting up at six in the morning, racing six hours, and then jumping on a plane for 10 hours, they will probably need a week to recover. For most of these riders, their next race is Catalonia, which starts next week.

This week is the Dauphiné and Lance's first test against some of his Tour de France competitors. This also is the first time we will see Levi, Tyler, and Lance all on the same battlefield. Besides the results of the race, the other battle that will be fought will be the mental one. The Tour is around the corner and now is not the time to show a chink in your armor.

June 16, 2003

Dauphiné

A sigh of relief? Or was there never an instance to worry? Probably no one will ever tell — not even Lance.

The finish of the Dauphiné confirmed what many were wondering and probably what the Belgian gamblers were dreading. That Lance is ready for the Tour de France and the Dauphiné was only a one-week hiccup on his way toward getting a fifth Tour title.

The Dauphiné, along with the Tour of Switzerland and Tour of Catalonia, are predominantly the warm-up races for the Tour de France. Lance won the Dauphiné last year and in 2001 he won the Tour of Switzerland. Of course, after both of these warm-up races Lance has gone on to win the Tour in the same year.

When I speak of warm-up races, I must stress that it is probably only regarded as a warm-up race to someone that can win the Tour de France. To win the Dauphiné, Switzerland, or Catalonia in it's own right is a huge achievement. It just seems to dwindle a bit in comparison when you talk about the Tour de France.

While the riders try to race for victory, they also are trying to race for a spot on their respective team's Tour roster. Many teams have 20-25 riders and the Tour only allows nine guys per squad. With this in the back of many riders' minds, there is much more at stake then just winning or losing a stage.

For the Postal Service, the climbers that rode the Dauphiné are pretty much the same guys that will race the Tour. And if you look at stage three, the time trial, for an indication of their form, I'd say the team is in good shape. Lance destroyed the peloton by winning the TT by a comfortable margin. Pena followed this in 21st and Beltran in 32nd. They also won the team classification on that day, which is calculated by taking the top three finishers from each team.

Once Lance took the leader's jersey, then it was back to what the team knows best, keeping the lead until the end. The only surprise in the operation was Lance, who crashed on the fourth day. The injury to his elbow was minor, but the attacks that occurred while Lance was on the ground were anything but minor.

In cycling, there is a general rule that if the leader of the race, especially early in the race, crashes, then no one attacks. There is also an unwritten rule that if there is a huge crash early in a stage, no one attacks. The object is to beat a rider by racing, not taking advantage of an unlucky situation. When Lance returned to the peloton he let a few words loose and I'm sure they were tame to what I've seen in the past from other riders.

The most exciting day came the second to last day as the riders had to climb one of the famous climbs of the Tour de France, the Col de Galibier. All race, Lance's strongest opponent has been Iban Mayo (Euskatel) and the Spaniard never gave up trying to defeat Lance.

Mayo repeatedly attacked Lance on the Galibier, eventually working his way up to a 30-second lead at the top. What Mayo didn't realize was that 30 seconds, on one of the best descenders in the world, would not be enough to even reach the bottom of the climb. I'm sure Lance reveled at this opportunity.

Finally, a chance where he could let loose and not hold back on a descent. The Tour is a different story — Lance always has to be a little more cautious, a little more weary, and a little tentative. The descent of the Galibier was time to have some fun and before Iban knew it Lance had caught him.

One thing was certain; Iban Mayo was one rider to watch and one dangerous man in the mountains. His performance at the Dauphiné just put him on the hit list for everyone to look out for. Iban Mayo won the combative jersey, the mountain jersey, and the points jersey, but in the end, there is one jersey that matters most — the leader jersey. Lance had that jersey wrapped up and proved to everyone he is fit, strong, and ready to tackle next month's project.

With the Dauphiné finished, now the Tour of Catalonia and the Tour of Switzerland are starting. Catalonia will feature the other half of the Postal guys as they try to perform well and make the Tour de France team. Switzerland most notably has Jan Ullrich, who will be under a very watchful eye from everyone.

At the conclusion of these races, we will have a better understanding of who will be the danger men for the Tour de France.

June 25, 2003
It's all good!

Michael Barry summed up Catalonia pretty well: "We finished in Andorra up a mother of a steep climb. There were actually two climbs back-to-back. Tomorrow we have another tough climbing day, followed by another pretty tough climbing day, followed by an uphill TT and then hilly circuits in Barcelona. Damn hills, man!"

The Tour of Catalonia, held in and around Barcelona, is a true climbers' race and a great race to see who is ready for the Tour de France. Last year Roberto Heras won the race and went on to ride an incredible race in the mountains in the Tour. Perhaps the results from this year's race will show signs of what to expect in July.

The first stage opened with an exciting TTT that the Postal guys lost only by three seconds to ONCE. Last year the Postal Service won the TTT and ONCE finished second. Don't think this little rivalry goes unnoticed among the riders - it's alive and well.

The second stage immediately gave a result to the team when George Hincapie placed third in the field sprint - a sign that George had good legs. This first day proved to be decisive after 40 riders formed a break and left the peloton behind as far as 20 minutes. No surprise was the fact that George and Roberto, the leaders of the team, made the first group.

After the two introductory stages, the real race heated up with mountains everywhere you looked. Roberto Heras was the man on stage 3. "Roberto did a fantastic ride today and is now leading overall," commented Michael Barry. This meant the Postal riders had a difficult and an easy job in front of them. Because of the first-day split in the peloton they only had to worry about maybe 30 riders, instead of 180 riders.

The bad part was that most of the great riders in the race were all in the first group and just waiting for their opportunity to attack in the mountains. And when riders attack, this means the Postal Service will have to chase. Christian VandeVelde said, "I pulled all day yesterday and then pulled the plug at the bottom of the last climb. I thought that my IT band was going to snap. Lots of fun."

Christian is struggling with a discrepancy in his leg power and he said now is the time to do something about it, "I'm going to see a specialist in bike fit/ muscle problems - what ever you want to call it. It's been very frustrating but enough is enough, and nobody was winning with me struggling." Christian retired from the race and is now back home to get things fixed.

Roberto was on his way to possibly winning the Tour of Catalonia for the second time, repeating last year's win. The only problem was a phenom rider named Pecharroman from the Coasta de Almeria team. In the critical uphill TT, Pecharroman took almost 50 seconds from Roberto and in the process took the yellow leader's jersey.

Roberto and the rest of the peloton were amazed at this relatively unknown rider's race. Pecharroman was a name they knew but they didn't know he had the talent to be at the top of the classification. Michael Barry told me, "Roberto gave it a good run for the overall but was beaten by an awesome Pecharroman. The team was really good."

The final day again saw George mix it up with the front guys in a field sprint. The ability to stay strong after six days of racing is a sure sign that George is riding like his old self. And it's more impressive if you can attack after six days of racing.

George commented, "I was away for 80k before they caught me with a group of about 10 guys. I was one of the only guys from the break to stay with the leaders over the climb, but I was able to recover in the last 20k. I lost by two centimeters!"

The final result of the race is important. Heras was 2nd overall, but more importantly was the condition of all the guys. Dirk Demol said that he believes Heras is more fit than last year, but they ran into an incredible Pecharroman.

By the end of this week, the U.S. Postal Service should name their final roster for the Tour de France. The selection of seven to eight riders has already been made, but the last two spots will be determined in these closing days. Many other teams will wait to list their final Tour Selection spots after each country hosts its National Championships. It's always nice to see a National Champion's jersey at the Tour, and if you want my two cents, they should have wanted a World Champion's jersey at the Tour also.

June 30, 2003
Time to roll the dice.

On July 5 the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France will start. This will be historic in more ways then one. Lance Armstrong will also be making history by trying to win his 5th consecutive Tour de France.

As I write this, there are only a few more days until the prologue and the Postal Service has just nailed down its final riders for the team. Many of the riders already know their selection but it's that last spot that has riders tinkering on the bubble. Basically, the team from 2002 will return with only a couple of exceptions.

The addition of Beltran is a huge boost of power and comfort for the mountain stages. Lance will not only be able to rely on Rubiera and Heras, he will now have even more horsepower at his disposal with Beltran. On the flats, the team has plenty of experience, but more importantly, a team that can motor in the team time trial. I'm talking about Hincapie, Padrnos, Pena, and Ekimov. The ninth rider was a battle among Landis, Mikhailov, Kjaergaard, or Joachim - all of whom have ridden the Tour before. All, except for Mikhailov have even helped Lance to a yellow jersey.

The final spot went to Floyd Landis, who along with George has had more press this year about their injuries then about their cycling. I know both of them are ready for that to change! It's fairly evident that both of them put in many, many hours of work and dedication to get back to their winning Tour de France forms.

Floyd's comeback started with the Tour of Georgia where each day he became progressively stronger. George's comeback started with the Tour of Belgium where he immediately scored results. Each of them had about two months to get ready and racing fit to make the Tour de France team.

As much as the team has to be one hundred percent ready, the burden still falls on Lance to put the finishing touches on the Tour de France. He is still the one who has to climb the mountains with the first group, time trial stronger than everyone else, and stay focused, despite all the hoopla.

His ability to bring himself up to this extreme level of fitness year after year at the same point in the year, JULY, is incredible. If you look at other past Tour winners it becomes evident this feat is no easy task. The possibility of five consecutive Tour victories is not easily explained nor is it easily accomplished.

This year Lance could face some of his toughest rivals. Jan Ullrich has returned and is coming off a successful Tour of Switzerland. Simoni, the winner of the Giro, has said that his abilities can match Armstrong's in the mountains. CSC is putting its hopes on Tyler Hamilton who broke into the contender box of the Tour de France after his impressive second place finish at the Giro.

There are also another handful of riders who will battle for stage wins, possibly a G.C. podium spot, and if luck strikes, perhaps the top shelf. I would say that they might have better luck playing the lottery than trying to win the Tour de France from Lance.

Go Postal Service!

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