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By Andrew Hood
More than a dozen Americans will be racing in Europe this season, ranging from five-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong to newbies like Tom Danielson, Tim Johnson and Patrick McCarty.
U.S. Postal Service remains the engine behind the strong American presence in Europe, with eight riders representing the colors across the pond. But there’s growing diversity in the American expatriate community, with seven teams from Denmark, Italy, Spain, Holland and Switzerland boasting a Yankee rider, and the U.S.-based Navigators planning another springtime assault on the continent.
Americans are also showing their force as leaders. Armstrong is the unquestioned alpha male in the Tour, while Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) are legitimate grand-tour contenders. George Hincapie (USPS) and Fred Rodriguez (Acqua e Sapone) shine in the classics, while Tom Danielson (Fassa Bortolo) and Floyd Landis (USPS) are poised to make big improvements.
Tony Cruz (USPS), Tim Johnson (Saunier Duval), Bobby Julich (CSC), Damon Kluck (USPS), Christian Vande Velde (USPS), David Zabriskie (USPS), McCarty (USPS) and perhaps David Clinger (Domina Vacanze), who may cross the pond once again, round out the Americans in Europe. All play important support roles, while taking opportunities for themselves when the time is right.
Here’s a quick look at Americans in the European peloton and where they’ll be in 2004:
U.S. Postal Service: Armstrong will be chasing a record-breaking sixth Tour de France victory this summer with U.S. Postal Service, his home since 1998. Armstrong said last week he’ll race two more years, but his contract is up with the Posties at the end of this season.
Prime Alliance to Domina Vacanze(?): The California rider is no stranger to the European peloton, racing with Festina during 2000-01 and with U.S. Postal Service in 2002. Clinger is reportedly in talks with Mario Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team to return to Europe for the 2004 season.
U.S. Postal Service: A solid helper on the Posties, Cruz rode in the Vuelta a España in 2001 and 2002, but was left off the team this September. Capable of fighting in some of the longer one-day classics and mid-level races, Cruz is expected to be back with the Posties next year.
Saturn to Fassa Bortolo: Danielson’s leap to the bigs will be one of the most-watched stories of the season. Signing with Italian powerhouse Fassa Bortolo, Danielson is expected to make his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia instead of being thrown into the pressure cooker of the Tour de France. Last year, despite pressure to race in Europe, Danielson signed on with Saturn to gain more experience.
Team CSC to Phonak: After a thrilling season that saw the first American victory in Liége-Bastogne-Liége, overall victory in Tour de Romandie, a Tour de France stage victory and fourth overall (with a broken clavicle), Hamilton surprised many by switching from Team CSC, his home since 2002 after leaving USPS, to the unproven Phonak team. Hamilton said the Swiss team has promised to build the team around his run at the 2004 Tour.
U.S. Postal Service: After a virus wiped out his beloved spring-classics season, Hincapie bounced back to provide critical support to Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory and was one of the favorites for the Hamilton world championships. The only rider to be part of all five of Armstrong’s victories, Hincapie will be looking to score on his own during this year’s monuments.
Saturn to Saunier Duval: Johnson’s plucky riding caught the eyes of Spanish start-up Saunier Duval, proving there’s room for more Americans in the Euro scene. Johnson was in Spain last week getting fitted out with his new kit and will return to Europe in January for training camps.
Telekom to Team CSC: After two years of relative obscurity on Telekom, Julich makes the jump to Team CSC, where he’ll have more chances to spread his wings. Team boss Bjarne Riis has already said he’s keen to have Julich as part of CSC’s team-time-trial effort in the Tour. Julich already likes the fit. After the team’s mini-camp in December, the 1998 third-place Tour finisher gushed on his web page that CSC “is what I have been looking for all my career.”
U.S. Postal Service: Back for a second year with Postal, Kluck will be looking to find his place in the European peloton with racing in the U.S. as well as Europe.
U.S. Postal Service: After an impressive European debut in 2002, when he finished second overall in the Dauphine Libéré and helped Armstrong to his fourth Tour, Landis’ 2003 season looked ruined when he broke his hip in January. But he bounced back to help Armstrong win his fifth Tour and then dug deep to help Roberto Heras win the Vuelta. An injury-free Landis could return to his 2002 levels this season.
Rabobank: Leipheimer put everything into the 2003 Tour de France, only to see his dreams dashed after a costly opening-stage crash that left him with a cracked hip. He didn’t have enough time to recover to regain his best form for the 2003 Vuelta a España, where he enjoyed his breakthrough podium ride in 2001. He signed a one-year contract extension with Rabobank and promises not to put all his eggs in the Tour basket.
Neo-pro to U.S. Postal Service: McCarty ended the season high in the 2003 U23 end-of-season rankings and already has tongues wagging about being the “next big thing.” He joins U.S. Postal Service after knocking elbows in Europe for the past several years and will cut his teeth in the pro ranks in select European races.
Sidermec-Vini Caldirola to Acqua e Sapone: The 2003 season started strong for “Fast Freddie” with some early wins, but he got sick in the late spring and never quite found his best legs for the rest of the season. The reborn Acqua e Sapone promises to give Rodriguez his first legitimate lead-out for the sprints, so it could be a big year for Rodriguez.
Christian Vande Velde
U.S. Postal Service: The all-rounder Vande Velde suffered through an injury-plagued 2003 season. Still with Postal, Vande Velde will be fighting for a spot on the Tour team and looking to show his face in such races as Fléche Wallone.
U.S. Postal Service: Zabriskie’s season ended in May when he collided with a car during a training ride, leaving the popular rider banged up and out for the season. Zabriskie is back with the Posties and has his eyes on the Olympics as well as having a breakthrough season on the Euro-circuit.
Neo-pro to Credit Agricole D-III: After finishing third overall in the Rond de l’Izard and taking best-young-rider honors at the Tour of Georgia, 20-year-old Raisin has been signed to join the French team’s Division III team next season. He will focus on the U23 racing calendar and possibly start the Tour de Avenir.
Chris Baldwin, Jeff Louder, Marty Nothstein, Kirk O’Bee, Burke Swindlehurst and Phil Zajicek
Expect to see at least some of these Yankees crossing the pond for the Navigators Cycling Team in 2004. According to sporting director Ed Beamon, the American TT2 squad plans a February training camp in Italy and a tentative European race schedule that includes the likes of the GP di Lugano in Switzerland, the GP Eric Bruekink in the Netherlands, and Ghent Wevelgem in Belgium, among others.