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By Michael Barry, Discovery Channel Cycling Team
Editor’s Note: Michael Barry, pro cyclist with the DiscoveryChannel Cycling Team and author of Insidethe Postal Bus: My Ride with Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal CyclingTeam, analyzes the team’s chances for the 2006 Tour de Franceand how the Discovery Channel team dynamic has changed going into thisfirst Tour of the post-Lance era.
In 2005, Lance Armstrong retired from the sport the moment he crossedthe finish line on the Champs-Elysées in yellow. It was his seventhconsecutive victory, a record that will likely not be broken for decades.He retired from our sport as the maître; with his leadership andsuccess, other teams looked to ours as an example and riders looked tohim as their example.The press also had a name in Lance that would catch an audience andsell their newspapers. Now that he has retired, things have changed. Forthe moment there is no longer a clear favorite for the Tour de France,nor any one figure who will guarantee massive crowds of spectators. Nobodycan replace Lance and his story.The last time I raced with Lance was at the 2005 Tour de Georgia. Wewere losing the race and as a team we had performed dismally in the toughindividual time trial. After the time trial, the team was down—we had cometo Georgia to win, and Lance, the all-American hero, should havebeen unbeatable on home soil. Yet we were crushed in an event where weusually excel.At dinner, Lance didn’t talk. He poked at his food, and then shoveleddown a forkfull, shadowing his face and his plate with the brim of hisbaseball hat which was pulled down tight on his head. He left the tablebefore the rest of us were done, simply saying, “Have a good night.” Wesaid little; we knew that we had struck out in a big game, and went tobed with this thought of failure in our heads.The next morning during our team meeting in the bus, Johan spoke. Asalways, he summarized the previous day’s race before laying out the planfor the day. We knew what was coming and stared down at our shoes, or ata light fixture, or out the window, as he spoke. We listened. We wouldbe attacking today—from the start. The goal was to wear out the competitors,making the race as hard as possible on them, so that Tom Danielson andLance could attack in the final. It would be like this for the next twodays in the hills. This was a situation we were not accustomed to; aftera time trial we were usually in the lead, and only had to ride defensivelyto keep our leader out of the wind and ready for any attacks.Then, Lance spoke. “This is bullshit,” he said. “We got our asses kickedand this is an embarrassment. We can’t lose this race, at least not likethis.”We were no longer searching the room with our eyes; we were all lookingat Lance. He commanded the team, and with a few words he had changed usfrom being a team that was down to a team that was fighting back and goingto win.Two days later, Tom Danielson, one of the best climbers in the worldand a new recruit to the team, was riding into Atlanta towards the finishof the week-long race in the yellow leader’s jersey. Everybody—includingus—had thought Lance would win the race, but instead he became a teammateand went on the attack early to set up Tom for the finish.Tom knew he had to win as Lance, his hero and boss, was working forhim. The pressure was on. Tom flew up the final climb of the race, oneof the toughest climbs in the eastern United States, to win the stage andthe race, overcoming a seemingly insurmountable time deficit. As Lancecrossed the line, just ahead of his ex-teammate Floyd Landis of Phonak,he pointed to the clock at the finish line that told the story of the race,throwing mud in the face of Floyd in front of the cycling world, to illustratethat our team was better, that we had won and that Floyd should have neverleft our team.We rode in Georgia in 2005 as the leading team, with the confidenceof having the best rider in the peloton with us. But with Lance’s retirement,we’ve changed. We are now an attacking team. Without a clear leader, weattack instead of sitting back and waiting for the ideal moment to movethe race. We are no longer the favorites at every race, so we go on theoffensive early to put the favorites on the defensive. As Johan said atour first team meeting of the year, right before the start of the inauguralTour of California in February, “For years we had to deal with all theseother guys attacking us; now you guys can pay them back. We go on the attackfrom the start and make them hurt. Let’s see how strong they are.”It has worked for us, and the team has achieved results consistentlythrough the first part of the year, starting with George Hincapie’s twostage wins in California. We now have several leaders and everyone on theteam has an opportunity to show his strengths.George is the longest-standing team member and essentially the teamleader. He had the best season of his life in 2005, finishing a close secondto our ex-teammate Tom Boonen in Paris-Roubaix, winning the hardest stageof the Tour, two stages of the Dauphiné Libéré, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurneand the GP Ouest-France. He went from being a strong rider who won infrequentlyto a complete cyclist who wins everywhere—on the cobbles, against the clockor in the mountains.Riders like George are rare in the modern peloton of specialists. Heis unique to our generation yet he resembles the champions of the past:Freddy Maertens, Sean Kelly, Phil Anderson, Steve Bauer. In 2006 he willbe one of the team leaders at the Tour. Last year, after his strong performancesin the mountains, he gained confidence and believes he can place well—andeven win—the Tour de France. He has led Lance for seven years so it willnot be a question of tactics but of execution.Although George is a team leader, he does not hold the same positionin the team that Lance did for so many years. At the beginning of the 2006season, the definitive Tour de France leadership was left up in the air.For seven years Lance had been escorted through the mountains and in theteam time trials by an elite group of cyclists, all capable of leadinga team on their own.Since Floyd Landis left our team in 2004 he has become a leader. WhenTyler Hamilton was suspended for blood doping, Floyd quickly filled thegap as Phonak’s top guy. He had a successful season in 2005, although hedidn’t achieve the victories he may have hoped for. But 2006 has been adifferent story, as he has already won three stage races: the Tour of California,Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Georgia. He can lead his team, and most importantly,they now have faith in their leader. A team that believes it has a winningleader will work until every last ounce of energy is drained from its pedals.As Floyd learned last season, leading a team is entirely different fromriding as a domestique. A domestique sets himself a finish line beforethe actual finish line as the point he has to work to, and when he reachesthat point the weight of the race is passed on to the next teammate. Andwhen there are none left, the leader goes on the attack to win the race.The pressures of leadership are just as hard to adjust to—Floyd canno longer simply stand in the shadow of his leader, letting him answerthe questions, and take charge of the team; Floyd now needs to be the guyin team meeting telling the riders, “We are going to fucking attack today!”To do this, the leader needs confidence and must deliver the victories.Floyd is doing that.To prepare for Lance’s retirement, our team manager Johan Bruyneel,assistant manager Dirk Demol and Lance kept their eyes open for young riderswith potential for the future as well as some proven riders that could,at least partially, fill the immediate void. One ace they chose is YaroslavPopovych, a young Ukrainian who was World Champion as an Under-23, leaderof the Giro d’Italia and a rider with the motor to win a grand tour. Heis young and talented, and has the nose to smell out a race and attackat the right moment to go for the victory—something that is almost innateand not easily learned. In 2005, his first year with the team and his firsttime riding the Tour de France, he won the Tour’s best young rider jerseyand placed in the first 15 overall, all while working like a mule for Lance.Prior to the Tour he won the Vuelta Catalunya, proving he has the talentto lead the team and to win.So now we have five riders who will have the opportunity to lead theteam at the Tour: George, Popovych, Jose Azevedo, Chechu Rubiera, and anothernew recruit in 2005, Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli. The final decision onleadership always depends on who is riding best at the DauphinéLibéré, the Tour of Switzerland, and most importantly duringthe last weeks of June before the Tour start. Each year the selection hasbeen the same; Johan has a clear idea of who he thinks will race the Tourde France but he waits until the last minute to announce the nine.This year, even after the Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland,the leadership was still not clear. Popovych had performed below par atthe Dauphiné, but he had in ’05 as well, and by July he was flying.Azevedo performed well in the mountains but wasn’t dominant enough to bethe clear leader. George performed well in the Dauphiné consideringit was his first race back since he crashed and separated his shoulderin Paris Roubaix. He was skinnier than he had ever been, and was stilltime trialing with the best. With the experience he has at the Tour, hewill most likely lead the team in July.As for Paolo, it is questionable whether Paolo will find his legs intime for the Tour in July after finishing fifth in one of the toughestGiros d’Italia ever. After rocketing down the starting ramp in the openingprologue of the Giro, it looked as if Paolo would be the man to beat allthe way to Milan. He rode the first days of the race in the pink leader’sjersey, looking strong, but soon the effects of a late spring took theirtoll: he suffered from allergies which hindered his breathing, breakinghis legs and morale. He rode valiantly, fighting each day to limit hislosses to an unstoppable and unbeatable Ivan Basso of CSC.Paolo Savoldelli is a strong leader and a great tactician, but it isstill unknown whether he can ride as a leader at the Tour de France. Johanthinks the Tour is better suited to Paolo’s abilities than the Giro; theTour route is designed for powerful time trialists that can climb whereasthe Giro course is mapped to suit pure climbers that can time trial.Prior to the 2005 Giro d’Italia, none of us, aside from his old teammatePavel Padrnos, knew Paolo. He crashed in the first couple of days at ourtraining camp and broke his collarbone. He returned home and didn’t beginracing again until just before the Giro, so we never had the opportunityto chat on the bike or over dinner at training camp.The 2005 race was the first Giro our team had ever ridden. Paolo hadalready won the Giro, in 2002, and was aiming to win another, despite nothaving had a result in the interim. He had missed several seasons due toinjury, and no one was sure how he would perform after such a long absenceat the top. But Paolo knew he had the legs to win, and I don’t think hedoubted his abilities or potential during the entire three weeks. His confidencewas evident to us—I can tell when a rider is ready for a big performance.His pedal stroke was fluid yet powerful, he seemed ready to win, he neverquestioned his abilities and he had no fear of his competitors.Savo is a different leader than Lance. He is not interested in the resultsof races he is not competing in, nor how his competitors are performingprior to the big race, nor what the gossip is in the peloton. He rideshis bike because he is good at it and enjoys it, not because he is someonethat has to be on top. What is similar in both leaders is that they aretacticians with ability to overcome bad odds and win.
Just over halfway through the 2005 Giro, Savo won a mountain stage,riding a tactically astute race to beat Ivan Basso. A few days later hewas wearing the pink leader’s jersey which he held all the way to the finishin Milan. The press said the team would not be strong enough to defendSavo’s lead, and that he wouldn’t be able to handle Gilberto Simoni’s violentattacks in the mountains. Despite the fact that we were the underdogs,the jersey lifted our form, as did Paolo’s sensational riding, and we allmanaged to survive and defend until Milan.If Lance led with an iron will, Paolo led with quiet conviction. Atthe Giro we were a team of guys doing our best and having a good time.We weren’t the favorites and, as a result, we had the motivation to proveeverybody wrong. As riders attacked us from the start each day, the critics’words were the fuel that fired our engines.Each morning over breakfast Savo was oblivious to the Nutella on hischin, to the crumbs on his shirt, and would chat with the media, or racedirectors without noticing his disheveled appearance. When we alerted himto it, he simply didn’t seem to care a whole lot. Similarly, his numberspinned to the back of the leader’s maglia rosa were always crooked or missinga pin. The jersey most Italian cyclists go to bed dreaming of was justanother jersey for him, one he needed to wear to win the race.On the podium Paolo was aloof, seemingly unhappy, as he pulled on thejersey, accepted the flowers and kissed the podium girls. Only when hewas given the champagne did his face light up; he popped the cork and completelysoaked the podium girls, champagne in their faces and up their skirts.He is not comfortable being on the front pages of the paper or on the sportshighlights; he is a farm boy from a mountain town outside of Bergamo, andunlike his countrymen he doesn’t take pleasure in driving a fancy car orhaving a fancy watch. He likes to joke around in a familial, childish way.As we rode into Milan during the final stage of the Giro, the mediawanted a traditional shot of Paolo clinking champagne glasses with theteam at the front of the peloton. Paolo, not comfortable with the situationor the setup scene, gave the photographers about a minute to get theirphotos before he called it over and disappeared back into the peloton.A month after winning the Giro, Paolo lined up to help Lance win hisseventh Tour. In the last week of the Tour he was on his death bed—sickas a dog, with a saddle sore that was the size of a marble and still growing.On a day when the team thought he was done, that he would most likely notfinish the race as he was coughing so heavily and looking like death, heovercame his pain and his attacking adversaries to win one of the mostexciting stage finishes of the Tour. He rode a tactically amazing race,and as in the Giro, never sat up until he was across the finish line. WithPaolo, the perception of his condition, of his personality and of his character,is rarely reality.The 2006 Tour de France is wide open and there is no clear favorite—theriders who in the past battled each other for Lance’s wheel now have theopportunity to race for yellow, a proposition nobody has really believedpossible since the new millennium.At the start of this season the Discovery Channel filmed a series ofcommercials to bring attention to the team and to keep Lance in the picture.After the Tour of California, in late February, the team spent a day inLos Angeles filming several scenes of “The race to replace Lance.” Essentially,the gist was that Johan and Lance planned to hold open trials for anybodywho wished to try out for the team as they had yet to find a new leader.The commercials were quite funny, with a bear, the Crocodile Hunter, andthe other Discovery Channel show stars putting their hands up for the spot.
Ironically, our team is very much in that position at the moment. Weare in need of a clear leader, someone who can convincingly say, “We needto win. We are getting our asses kicked.” No doubt, that leader will cometo the fore when his fitness is at a peak, and he is confident he can win.As we get closer to the big rendezvous of the season in July, it willbecome more apparent who that leader is.Paolo took charge in the Giro, and the team rode solely for him there.Chechu Rubiera, Triki Beltran and Tom helped him in the mountains and Eki(Viatcheslav Ekimov), Benoit Joachim, Jason McCartney, Pavel Padrnos andWhitey (Matt White) kept him in position and protected him on the flatterroads. He went to the Giro to win, rode like a champion and a leader butlost—not because of the team, or because he hadn’t trained well, but becauseBasso was simply flying and because Paolo could never quite get his legsunder him after the pollen started blowing around in the spring air.There has been a trend this year—we are winning stages of races, placingseveral riders in the first ten overall, and winning the team classification,but we are rarely winning the overall. It seems that the team is in greatcondition, arguably the best it has ever been, but without a leader likeLance we have several good riders that perhaps aren’t sacrificing themselvescompletely for a goal and the big victory. Surely that will change in July.
Michael Barry writes about his ride with Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team in his book, Inside the Postal Bus.“From winter training camp to the Tour de France, Inside the Postal Bus offers an accurate, behind-the-scenes view of our team.” — Lance Armstrong“Inside the Postal Bus is so descriptive I felt I knew the riders and staff on the team before I actually met them. Chapter after chapter you really feel like you become a member of the team and get the sensation of what it is like to be on the bus with the boys.” —Tom Danielson