Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood: Big-budget U.S. teams gearing up to race

There’s plenty happening around VeloNews headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, as our editorial crew ramps up for the upcoming season. We’re just midway through production of issue No. 2, a packed preview of the international road season, but already production has begun on issue No. 3, our Buyer’s Guide. Good thing those Buyer’s Guide pages will be glossy, my friends, because you’re guaranteed to be drooling over the gear splashed across the pages. Carbon, titanium, aluminum – oh my! Myself, I’m trying to get all my ducks in a row, finishing up assignments for both issues while preparing for

By Neal Rogers

Surfer dudes Chris Wherry and Walker Ferguson at the Health Net camp

Surfer dudes Chris Wherry and Walker Ferguson at the Health Net camp

Photo: Neal Rogers

There’s plenty happening around VeloNews headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, as our editorial crew ramps up for the upcoming season. We’re just midway through production of issue No. 2, a packed preview of the international road season, but already production has begun on issue No. 3, our Buyer’s Guide.

Good thing those Buyer’s Guide pages will be glossy, my friends, because you’re guaranteed to be drooling over the gear splashed across the pages. Carbon, titanium, aluminum – oh my!

Myself, I’m trying to get all my ducks in a row, finishing up assignments for both issues while preparing for the colossal flight from Denver International Airport to Penang, Malaysia, for the Tour de Langkawi.

It’s a venture that sees me leaving my home in Boulder at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 1, and arriving in Penang at 2:20 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3. Talk about entering “The Twilight Zone.” That should give me plenty of time to browse through the travel books I’m bringing along. I just hope I don’t end up having delusions of creatures dismantling a wing, wreaking havoc with the engine…

It feels as though I just unpacked my bags, perhaps because I just did. I spent last week on a West Coast swing to take in some noteworthy team camps — Health Net, U.S. Postal and the T-Mobile women’s team — three big-budget U.S. based teams that are sure to have an impact on their respective race calendars.

The first few days were spent in San Diego with the Health Net pro cycling team presented by Maxxis. What a crew that team has put together, from consummate professionals like Gord Fraser, Mike Sayers, Scott Moninger, Chris Wherry and John Lieswyn to up-and-comers such as Tyler Farrar, Mike Jones, Walker Ferguson and Jason Lokkesmoe. Kiwis Greg Henderson and Hayden Godfrey are the hard men from overseas, while their former 7UP teammates Brice Jones, Dan Schmatz and Jason McCartney bring horsepower and an established team cohesion to the mix.

And then there’s the indescribable Danny Pate, the 2001 U23 world time trial champion. An unbelievably gifted rider, Pate hovers between damn good and phenomenal on the bike; off the bike, the 24-year-old brings a mischievous sense of humor to the squad. Examples range from his riding at the front of the peloton at stage races last year, playfully antagonizing then race-leading Saturn riders with repeated false attacks, to his after-hours, high-speed joyride on a hotel luggage cart with former Prime Alliance teammate Alex Candelario after the Tour de Beauce had ended.

Pate was the last man added to the Health Net roster, and if there were any question as to whether such a proven super-talent would fit in, it was answered for me at the team’s tour of wheel sponsor Reynolds Composites. As the team stood in a semi-circle, watching a wheel-manufacturing demonstration, Pate coyly nudged his way to the front, intentionally blocking Henderson’s view. Just as Henderson was about to give Pate a good old-fashioned Kiwi elbow to the back, the large man from Colorado Springs looked over his shoulder, raised an eyebrow, and broke into a sheepish grin. It may not sound like much, but for a new team coming together to take on a season of racing, antics like these pay off in dividends down the road.

The visit was good fun for me, too, as the team’s hotel was located in Solana Beach, California, about a block from the beach and a half-mile from my old high school girlfriend’s house. Ah, memories.

One sunny morning, soon after the guys set out for a training ride, an SUV rolled into the hotel parking lot, stacked up with surfboards. Not an uncommon sight in San Diego, except when land-locked Colorado natives Chris Wherry and Walker Ferguson are the “dudes” emerging from the vehicle, alongside Health Net Cycling president Thierry Attias and his good friend Paul Perez.

Turns out Wherry and Ferguson had borrowed the boards from Candelario (now riding with Jelly Belly), who lives just up the coast from the team’s hotel. After their session, the pair embarked on the second leg of their “California triathlon,” getting in a good two-and-a-half hours on the bike.

“We actually got in a harder ride,” Wherry said, justifying the paddle out. “When you’re riding with a bigger group you spend most of the day on someone’s wheel, but Walker and I were in the wind the whole time.”

Now that’s my kind of training camp. Of course Ferguson and Wherry aren’t headed to Malaysia, where I will be seeing Fraser, Sayers, Lieswyn, Pate, Henderson, Moninger and Brice Jones.

Pro that he is, Moninger is preparing for the tropical heat and humidity by riding a stationary trainer set up in the steam room in his Colorado home. Moninger raced in Malaysia in 2001 with the Mercury-Viatel team and wasn’t fully satisfied with his performance.

“I got the call at the last minute,” he remembered. “I think I got Chann McRae’s spot, and I wasn’t that prepared coming from a cool, dry climate like Colorado to Malaysia, where it’s the other end of the spectrum. I’ve done some research on the adjustment period your body has to go through, and it takes your body anywhere from a week to 10 days to get used to the heat and humidity. I’m just trying to speed up the process.”

Moninger says he’s ridden in the steam room twice in the past three days, lasting about 45 minutes in 95-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Man, talk about doing your homework. Expect to be reading a lot more about this team in 2004.

***

T-Mobile's lineup

T-Mobile’s lineup

Photo: Neal Rogers

Next on the docket was the T-Mobile women’s camp, held 250 miles north in Buellton – at the same hotel, during the same week, as last year’s Saturn women’s camp. And with the Saturn women’s program now morphed into the much-smaller-budget, yet-to-be-unveiled Quark Cycling team, T-Mobile is the premier women’s program in North America.

Or, perhaps I should say, from North America, as team management stressed that 70 percent of the team’s racing in 2004 will be international, with the ultimate goal of fielding the strongest possible U.S. team for the Olympic Games. Given the monopoly of American talent on this corporately-funded national team, it’s not a matter of whether a team member will make the Olympic squad, but rather which team member.

Returning are the three riders most favored to make the three-woman Olympic squad: high-profile riders Dede Barry (top North American at the world road championships in Hamilton); Kimberly Bruckner (three-time and defending national time trial champion); and road national champion Amber Neben.

Also returning are Kim Anderson, Kristin Armstrong, Dotsie Cowden (nursing a broken collarbone), Mari Holden, Lara Kroepsch, Tanya Lindenmuth and Stacey Peters. Lindenmuth will be the designated track cyclist, while Holden plans to split time between the road and track, competing in the time trial and pursuit at World Cup qualifiers. Anderson will also be riding by herself at points in the season, hitting the NORBA circuit in hopes of besting her third place at Big Bear’s cross-country event last year.

The team’s only new addition, Lynn Gaggioli (wife of Italian superstar Roberto Gaggioli), had some impressive rides last year for the small-scale Velo Bella squad, including a second place at the Wachovia Liberty Classic in Philadelphia and an overall win at Wisconsin’s Superweek.

With so many riders returning from last year (10 of 11), there wasn’t a lot of what you’d call “news” coming from the team’s camp. One revelation was the announcement that Chris Witty – a world-record-holding speed skater and Olympic gold medalist who returned to track racing late in 2003 and took national titles in the 500m time trial and sprint – had recently decided to retire from cycling to focus entirely on speed skating.

The other revelation? Well, there’s only one way to say this – and T-Mobile ladies, if you’re reading, this comes from only the best of places – the T-Mobile women’s professional cycling team has major sex appeal. Not only can these women win bike races, they are not too hard on the eyes. Not at all. For proof, just check out the photo of Kimberly Bruckner and Dede Barry in Dede’s recent column.

***

Last but certainly not least on the training-camp junket was a visit to the debut of the 2004 U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, presented by Berry Floor – which, for the duration of this column, will be referred to as “Postal.”

Held three hours after T-Mobile’s presentation in the neighboring town of Solvang, Postal’s media day was a very structured affair. First off was a half-hour press conference with the man himself, Lance Armstrong. Absent was team director Johan Bruyneel, whose wife had just delivered a baby.

There were no off-the-wall questions about recumbent bikes this time around — although the older gentleman that asked Lance what “kind of bike” he rides did make a cameo appearance.

Instead, Armstrong answered questions about donuts and attending movie premieres, the Tour de France and Jan Ullrich, with not one direct question about his relationship with Sheryl Crow (hey, if it makes him happy, right?).

There were no real bombshells during the press conference, although Armstrong’s displeasure with the Tour organizers’ decision to limit a team’s losses to two-and-a-half minutes in the team time trial is clearly a sore spot with the defending champion.

“I still don’t know that I understand that, but it’s their race, and their rules, and they’re free to change and do what they choose,” Armstrong said. “But if you consider a team with strong climbers gets to the second time check, and that’s only halfway through the race, and they’re already two-and-a-half minutes down, what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to sit up and take it easy. If that makes for good sport, and good TV, and good interest, I’d be surprised.”

Afterward, the rest of the team was quickly introduced – and then just as quickly thrown to a hungry pack of rabid media 50 strong. It was a free-for-all session, with each reporter trying to grab a rider’s attention while certain lucky journalists were granted 15-minute blocks of time one-on-one with Armstrong.

What an all-star cast this team has, with superstars such as George Hincapie, Jose Luis Rubiera, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Max Van Heeswijk and Floyd Landis (and as long as we’re discussing sex appeal today, check out the photo of Landis surrounded by female journalists after the team presentation. Go, Floyd!)

Lance’s quest for six Tour wins is obviously the story of Postal’s existence, but what I found equally as interesting was the new crew of young guns on the team, including Americans Mike Creed, 23; Patrick McCarty, 22; and Canadian cross-country phenom Ryder Hesjedal, also 23.

Demonic possession? No, it's just Creed being Creed

Demonic possession? No, it’s just Creed being Creed

Photo: Neal Rogers

Universally liked, Creed’s every bit as eclectic as his former teammate and longtime friend Danny Pate. Hesjedal’s been known to speak his mind now and then, too, and it promises to be interesting in 2004 to hear how this crew — enhanced with the comedic stylings of Americans Dave Zabriskie and Damon Kluck — gets along on one of the most demanding teams in the world. Who knows? It could be the beginning of a whole new era for Postal.

Given some of the other media in attendance — The New York Times, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune — VeloNews considered itself fortunate to have the opportunity to some “private” time with one of the greatest living athletes (for the full interview, see issue No. 2, on newsstands and in bike shops on February 7).

It was the first time I’d ever met Lance in any formal sense (i.e., that he would remember). And to answer the question I’ve been asked since — “What was he like?” — I can only respond that he was just like he is on television: very matter-of-fact.

Actually, the word I’d use is relaxed. There’s been some talk lately in the media of a new “more open” Armstrong, and in my experience, he was, if nothing else, at ease. I managed to get a few laughs out of him, and he replied to all of my questions, including a few that I just had to ask out of curiosity, such as: VN: What happened with the white team jerseys from 2000? The team had blue and red in 1999 and has every year since. Was that just some kind of an experiment?

LA: The Postal Service really wanted the eagle on blue. That eagle is supposed to never go outside of an entirely blue background [in 2000, the eagle was on a black background]. It violated what they had always done. Some people liked the jersey; some people didn’t like the jersey. Hard to see in the peloton too, for Johan, which is a big factor, believe it or not.

It was also the first time I’ve conducted an interview where the interviewee also had a tape recorder running, started and stopped by Postal’s media liaison, Jogi Muller. What can you say about that? The man is covering his bases.

Another thing I noticed about Armstrong is that he’s not afraid to look you in the eyes, whether during press conferences or a one-on-one. We’ve all heard about his incredible ability to stay focused, and it becomes truly apparent when he’s speaking with you. It’s not necessarily an “intense” look in his eye – “unwavering,” perhaps.

There’s been much discussion about whether or not Armstrong is preparing properly, whether he still has the same drive, and whether Postal can withstand the multipronged attacks from T-Mobile, Liberty Seguros and Phonak. Obviously only time will tell, but the following comment — and the absolute determination in his reply — gave me reason to believe that Armstrong is very comfortable with his situation in life, both personally and professionally.

Asked what he thinks is the greatest public misconception about him, Armstrong thought for a moment before answering.

“I guess lately the biggest misconception is that I’m sitting around eating donuts,” he said. “If you go around and read the Web, it’s the biggest comic relief out there. It’s so funny. That’s okay, because it plays perfectly for me. If I had my wish, I hope that Jan Ullrich thinks that I’m sitting around eating donuts right now, drinking beers, hanging out with hot chicks and not riding my bike. That’s probably the biggest misconception right now.”

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