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September 6, 2003|
By Frankie Andreu
The month of September means cooler temperatures for northern Europe. This is after the suffocating heat wave they have experienced this summer.
But for Spain, the month of September, means the Vuelta. The third Grand Tour of the cycling season that provides many riders a chance to be discovered and a chance to finally shine.
It also provides one of the last important opportunities for a rider to obtain a new contract for the 2004 season. The Vuelta, although a step below in importance from the Tour de France and Tour of Italy, provides a chance for new riders to learn how to ride a three-week race and experienced riders a chance to try and win one of cycling's premiere events.
Adding to the importance of the Vuelta is that it also holds the key to prepare properly for the World Championships held in the middle of October in Hamilton, Canada. This year's Vuelta will again have shorter, faster stages, a new format implemented by the UCI a couple of years ago. This provides more excitement for the race, it gives a younger rides a chance to finish, and it allows the riders to finish out the season without burying themselves.
The 58th edition of the Vuelta will start Sep 6 and on Thursday, two days before the start, the teams will be presented at the Molinon Stadium in Gijon. The U.S. Postal Service will be present with one of the most experienced teams in its history to try and win this year's race.
Every rider on the Postal Service's Vuelta team has previous experience in a Grand Tour. The team of Roberto Heras, George Hincapie, Jose Rubiera, Floyd Landis, Michael Barry, Benoit Joachim, Max VanHesswijk, Manuel Beltran and Matt White will concentrate on winning stages and winning the overall classification.
The Vuelta will start with what is the team's strongest event, the TTT. After winning the Tour de France TTT, the Postal Service will have a very good chance to take the yellow jersey on the very first day of the race. The yellow jersey will go to who ever crosses the finish line first on the winning team. After the start the riders will face the challenges of three additional time trials and six-mountain top finishes. Most of the stages will be less than 170 kms and the final challenge will come on the second to last day with a twelve-kilometer uphill time trial.
The team is totally focused in its support of Roberto Heras to win the Vuelta. The team will only focus on this objective unless something happens to take Roberto out of the overall. If this happens then the team will change its focus towards winning stages.
The first week Max VanHeeswijk will be a part of the field sprints, along with George Hincapie, as they look for some early results. Rubiera, and Beltran will be the protected riders until the mountains arrive. While Joahcim, Barry, White, and Landis will have the job of controlling the race and keeping the protected riders out of trouble at all times.
The road to the finish is a long three weeks but with one of the best teams in the race the U.S. Postal Service is sure to have success.
September 11, 2003
With the Vuelta just under way, the U.S. Postal Service has shown it is a powerhouse team not only in July but also in September.
The first stage was a TTT that the U.S. Postal riders lost by only 10 seconds to team ONCE. This meant that ONCE would have the yellow jersey and the responsibility to control the race.
After the second stage, many riders who had thought of overall victory found themselves missing out on making the first group. The cat. 1 climb, the nine-kilometer Alto de Mirador del Fito, destroyed the peloton. Riders very quickly found out who had good legs and who had bad legs.
The Postal Service did a great job of setting up their two leaders at the bottom of the climb, Manuel Beltran and Roberto Heras, who were able to stay with the first leaders and not lose any time on that first road stage.
Stages 3, 4, and 5 were stages for the sprinters, and Allesandro Pettachi showed why he is the number-one sprinter in the world by winning two of those stages. On stage five, the danger did not come in the course profile but because of very high winds. Wind speed was between 40-60km/hr all day long and this meant a very nervous peloton. The necessity to stay in the front of the peloton was always urgent because every time the road would turn, the wind would change, causing the peloton to break apart.
At the finish, Matt White was exhausted after killing himself to help keep Roberto and Manuel stay out of the wind. On the other hand, Manuel looked like he had not even raced yet, very relaxed and very rested.
The idea of protecting the two riders on stage four was very important because the following day was the first individual time trial, which would make or break the efforts of the team for the mountains.
Many times during the race the team rides at the front as though it controls the jersey even though it does not have the jersey. Sometimes it looks like they are leading out for a sprint even though they are not. The purpose of this is to solely keep Heras and Beltran out of harm's way.
On stage 3 there was a dangerous descent after a cat. 3 climb before the feed zone. The team led up the climb and down the descent in order to keep Roberto in the first 10 riders and comfortably out of trouble. The first week until the mountains, and until riders stop battling to always be in the front, the team will continue this line of work. This is where the strength and depth of a strong team, like the Postal Service has, plays an important role in the success of their leaders later in the race.
Again for the individual time trial, the wind blew very, very strong. Riders would crawl on the way out for 21 km until they turned and experienced the tailwind. As George put it, "It was real windy. On the way out I had to use my small chainring. It was crazy. But I flew on the way home. I think it will be a very hard TT for Roberto."
At the same time that George finished, Benoit Joachim and Michael Barry finished also. They all were soaking wet from sweat even though it was not very hot. Michael told me he was feeling pretty good but he wasn't going to be sure until he reached the first mountain days on stages 7,8, and 9.
As for the time trial, Manuel Beltran had the TT of his life, almost catching Roberto Heras, his two-minute man, just before the finish line. Beltran, on a course that was dead flat and very, very windy, powered to a sixth place finish.
The riders in front of him were all TT specialists except for the winner of the stage, Nazol, who had the power of the yellow jersey behind him. The question now will be the climbing ability of Nazol as we head into the mountains. Manuel will be able to climb with the leaders and Roberto will also be there in the first group.
They will have help from Rubiera, but as he told me, "I'm having a hard time right now. The Tour was so hard and I haven't been able to feel 100 percent since then. I'm getting tired but I'm going to try my best to have a good place in the mountains. I'm more worried about the second and last week." Again, the depth of the team's strength will become very important as the team rides into the mountains and into the final weeks.
For now, ONCE still has the yellow leader's jersey with Nazol, but this young rider will have his hands full when the mountains arrive starting tomorrow. The race will now head into three hard mountain days that will benefit the Postal boys. There are three back-to-back mountaintop finishes.
The mountaintop finishes are 16kms, 21kms, and 26kms respectively. This is plenty of mountain to either take the lead or to lose the lead in the Vuelta de Espana.
The Spanish papers read that Roberto Heras should be crying after coming out of the Pyrenees. I don't know if the papers are biased toward the Spanish team ONCE, and the race leader Nozal, but there is still plenty or racing left.
The U.S. Postal Service lit it up in the mountains, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the ONCE squad. The idea of a three-week race is to win at the end not in the middle and many times it's a matter of wearing down your opponent.
The very first mountain day Heras attacked and put pressure on the ONCE team that required them to chase. Up the Col d'Aubisque, after Roberto's break went past, Nozal, the yellow jersey wearer, was forced to chase as he tried to limit the damage.
On the final climb the previous efforts of Nozal sapped his legs as Beltran countered Roberto's attack and took a minute out of Nozal's lead. The following mountain day saw a break go off very early but the leaders waited to attack until the final mountain ascent.
As Floyd Landis puts it, "Every day these guys attack from the start only to make the race harder than ever. Than after they stir things up they get dropped and are sitting in the back group."
George Hincapie also agreed, "It's been hard, every day the race starts flat out." As the grupettos form in the back of the peloton, the leaders race it out in the front. On the eighth stage day, Nozal hung tougher because of his ability to sit back and rest on this day. The final mountain day, in the first week, saw the peloton shatter and re-group probably about four times. Again, Roberto was the aggressor.
Each time Roberto attacked Nozal marked him like a warrior after his prey. The front group of 20 would break apart only to have the tenacity of the riders bring it all back together. Roberto was attacking to win the stage but when you are one of the strongest in the race it sometimes makes it that much harder to pull it off.
Near the top, Beltran struggled to stay in contact with the first five riders and Roberto's aggressive style hampered his legs in the final sprint. Yeah, final sprint! After a 21-km mountain top finish there was a 20 rider group sprint, something very rarely seen in the mountains.
The mountains have been very hard for the two climbers of the race but the fatigue on the other riders' face was very evident also. Each day Matt White and George can be seen on the front helping keep their leaders out of trouble and at the front for the start of the climbs. Benoit Joachim, Floyd Landis and Che Chu Rubiera have been a large factor in the mountains because of their ability to make it over with the leaders to help them out later in the race.
Johan said, "It's been very hard on the guys. They are tired but they have been fighting it out. Roberto is very good, and is only getting better."
On the first day after the mountains George showed his ability to keep fighting it out by taking a chance at a stage win. The final 20 kilometers the peloton pushed speeds of 60 to 70 kilometers an hour. A break of five formed and it looked they were going to stay away as the peloton resisted putting in a full fledge chase.
With four kilometers to the finish, George seized the opportunity to jump across to the break. His reaction brought three other riders and in about 1.5 kilometers the two groups had formed. Now they were to battle together to try and stay away from the peloton. As George told me, "I felt ok and we were working together well. The problem was it was so windy, it felt like we were going nowhere." With about 800 meters to the line George felt there was one last chance, "I could, since we were going to get caught but I went for it, you never know." The sprint from the pack swallowed George 400 meters from the finish and Eric Zabel took his first Vuelta win this year.
On Tuesday, Sept. 16, the race finally had its first rest day. Now they head south to below Barcelona and hopefully out of the windy conditions that have tortured the race for the last week. At least this rest day for the riders will be a real rest day. They did the long transfer immediately after stage10.
When I talked with George at about 9:30 p.m., the team bus had just rolled up to their hotel, and they were getting ready to start dinner. In Spain this is a normal time for dinner but as a rider your stomach and legs usually don't agree with this Spanish custom.
The following days will be stressful as the team tries not to make mistakes on these transition days to the next set of mountains. The next big test for trying to take they yellow jersey will arrive with the individual time trial on stage 13 and more mountaintop finishes on stage 15 and 16.
If we jump back across the water toward home, the big race here was in San Francisco. Many top riders showed up with the intention of getting a few more races in their legs until the end of the season. The Postal Service sent a very strong team to try and capture one of America's largest and richest one-day races.
The Postal Service team consisted of Armstrong, Ekimov, Pavel Padranos, Mikhailov, VandeVelde, Damon Kluck, and Robbie Ventura. The riders flew in a couple days early to take care of media requirements. This included a news conference, a dinner and group/friend ride out at Tom Weisel's house, and a Nike meet-and-greet autograph signing session.
On race day it was a different story as the team pulled up to the line with no Mr. nice guys written on their faces. Racing in America always poses a lot of pressure on the team as they try to show why they are Tour de France winners on home soil.
In the weeks before the race Lance was seen training and motorpacing, getting ready for the race, but on race day he knew things were not right. Lance had to abandon the race suffering from a stomach bug and left it up to his teammates to finish out the battle.
And a battle it was as Damon Kluck talks about it, "The race was a torcher. I felt good but after about three hours I started to really suffer. It was really very windy and the climbs were brutal, but we knew about the climbs."
An early break formed and because of the conditions the peloton had a good feeling it was only a matter of time before it got caught. "With the conditions it was obvious the early move wouldn't stick, it was too hard. Plus it was only a few guys," Damon commented.
What the riders didn't realize was the strength of Chris Horner, who bridged to the final group of eight and then attacked solo to eventually win. The Postal riders at the end of the race had Ekimov, VandeVelde and Damon still battling it out for positions.
Damon said he knew where to ride, "I just focused on staying near Eki, he seems to always be at the front. I would like to have been able to help him more but I had nothing left in the final laps."
Ekimov, the veteran of the group, would have the strongest legs of the team that day and in the final 800 meters of the race, Ekimov took off with one of his patented moves. When Ekimov takes off that close to the finish line it's like a motorcycle accelerating away from the police.
There is no way you can catch him. Eki finished in third place, again putting the team on the podium in a very tactical race.
The U.S. Postal Service has won the Tour of Spain, completing a double of winning two grand tours in the same year.
After winning the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong, the team sent a powerhouse squad to the Tour of Spain to revenge Roberto Heras's second-place finish last year.
In 2002, Roberto lost the Tour of Spain on the final day. This year, roles were reversed as Roberto flew up the final mountain time trial to take over the yellow jersey with one day left. The biggest difference between last year's race and this year's was that Roberto's win did not come from just one effort — it was a long, mentally tough challenge that took place over the course of the last two weeks.
The final week of racing was the most decisive, as team members took matters into their own hands to shape the race in their favor. On stage 12, the winds blew fiercely and knowing that the Postal Service has one of the best TTT squads in the world, Johan, the director, decided to take advantage of the situation.
Michael Barry explains it well. " We took advantage of a situation and made it work. Other teams had tried in the wind previously, before we did, but they had not succeeded. I think a big factor was that we kept going for so long and persisted until the finish line."
This persistence broke the peloton apart, throwing two key rivals out of contention to win the race and moved Roberto from 6th overall to 4th overall on the classification. Michael also explained the mental aspect of destroying the group; "The crosswind day was awesome. It really boosted the team's morale. Especially for Roberto and Triki (Beltran). I think it motivated them to get another minute before going into the TT."
The individual TT was critical if Roberto wanted to keep his position in the hunt to win the Vuelta. He couldn't afford to lose any more time, and he came through with a seventh place finish, only seconds behind the winner and yellow jersey wearer Nozal from ONCE.
At this point, Nozal looked unbeatable after winning both individual time trials and climbing with the best through the mountains. But some of the hardest mountains were still left in the race and the team had been waiting for this moment. Each time the race hit the mountains, Roberto was able to take 30 seconds to a minute out of the leader.
But stage 19 was the day that Nozal realized what was happening. Each day in the mountains he had to chase and work very hard to not only stay with Roberto, but also with the other top riders. Roberto's non-stop attacking always kept the pace irregular and very, very difficult.
For Nozal, this constant responding to attacks started to break his legs. On stage 19, Floyd Landis made an early break and later in the stage Roberto attacked on one of the mountains to bridge up to Floyd. Roberto's aggressive attack left Nozal behind and when the two Postal boys teamed up, they immediately put minutes on Nozal.
The panic ensued and as Nozal saw his lead vanish, the ONCE team was able to re-group and bring back the leaders, but the damage was done as Roberto again picked up another minute. Roberto's confidence gained as he picked up minutes, not seconds, and Nozal started to realize the comfortable time gap he once had was now disappearing.
On stage 20, the second to last day, Roberto took over the leader's jersey by winning the uphill mountain TT. Last year he lost the Vuelta in the final TT and this year he won the final TT. Roberto was going so fast in the uphill TT, he practically had to break for some of the corners.
This was in contrast to Nozal, who clearly showed he was suffering and struggling to make the bike move forward quickly. At the finish, Roberto Heras led the Vuelta by only 28 seconds and became the winner of the Tour of Spain for the second time in his career.
This is the first time in 20 years that different riders from the same team won a Grand Tour in the same year. The depth and strength of the U.S. Postal team adds to their accomplishments but it's their mental staying power that sets them apart.
The Postal Service has Johan, a director who knows his riders very well and knows what each of them are capable of accomplishing. He is a director who knows strategy and how other teams will react to different situations, a director who is not afraid to lay it all on the line to try and win.
The most important part are the riders who can back up the action and back up the plans that are laid out in the morning. Riders in this year's Vuelta like Max VanHeeswijk and Matt White and George Hincapie, who constantly had to keep the climbers out of the wind and do the leadouts to the bottom of the climbs and then continue to struggle to make it to the finish.
Riders like Benoit Joachim and Michael Barry, who had to control things in the first part of the mountains or set tempo on the mountains at a pace that was uncomfortable for everyone, including them.
There was Rubiera and Floyd Landis, who were in charge of critical areas on the racecourse when Roberto could not be left alone. They were the teammates who always had to be present when the race really started to heat up. There was Manuel Beltran who sacrificed his own chances for a top placing overall to help Roberto win the race.
Something that until two days from the finish no one knew could happen, but Manuel still attacked and chased and watched his G.C. standing vanish in the hopes that Roberto would win.
Lastly, there is Roberto, who lived up to everyone's hopes and Johan's expectations and won the race. Johan probably believed more than Roberto that he could win the Vuelta. Mentally, Roberto never faltered, even after not being able to take time out of Nozal during the second week.
Roberto's experience played a huge part, because he knew the last week would be decisive and Roberto never made a mistake the entire way toward his victory. He gradually chipped away and remained vigilant in his pursuit of the yellow jersey and his second Tour of Spain victory.
Congratulations to the entire team and to all the staff that worked flawlessly for three weeks to ensure success. VENGA ROBERTO!
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