By Andrew Hood
Six returning riders from last year’s Tour de France team will line up for U.S. Postal Service to support Lance Armstrong in his quest to win a record sixth Tour.
There’s an added emphasis on strength in the mountains as Armstrong will be looking to get all the support he can in a decisive second half of the race, which starts July 3 in Liège, Belgium.
“We will have a very strong team in the mountains, stronger than last year,” said U.S. Postal Service sport director Johan Bruyneel in a team press release. “We have six riders from last year and two new guys. Lance is confident he has a strong team and now it’s up to him to be ready. His form is coming.”
Back from the 2003 Tour team are Americans George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov, Czech rider Pavel Padrnos and Spanish riders Manuel Beltran and Jose Luis Rubiera while newcomers Jose Azevedo and Benjamin Noval got the nod ahead of team veterans Victor Hugo Peña and Benoit Joachim.
“Basically, we have the same team as the other years,” Armstrong said. “We have a very experienced team and more than anything else, we have a very committed team. They know what it takes to win the Tour and they want to do that again.”
Armstrong won his record-tying fifth Tour in a hard-fought battle last year against Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile). With a challenging course in the offing for the 91st Tour, Armstrong said it will be important to be stronger in the decisive second half of the race.
“The last week looks really tough, the toughest we have ever done,” said Armstrong, who will be starting his 10th career Tour. “It will be much better to have a stronger second half than a strong first half.”
Bruyneel said many of the riders will be hitting their peak just in time for the Tour start with the hopes of being as strong as possible once the decisive climbing stages begin with Stage 12 at La Mongie.
“This year, things were planned a little different,” Bruyneel said. “The Tour route is different, with the mountains coming so late, so we are trying to have everyone reach top shape right at the start of the Tour, maybe even a bit later. It’s not easy to plan but I think we calculated it well and the guys have confidence that their form is coming.”
The major surprise in the team selection is the choice of Spanish rider Noval ahead of Peña, a member of the previous three winning efforts. Last year, Peña became the first Colombian to wear the yellow jersey after Postal Service won the team time trial, but Noval’s strength impressed Bruyneel.
“For Noval, I selected fitness over experience,” Bruyneel said. “This will be his first Tour but he has raced in three Tours of Spain. He is very professional and very dedicated and will do his job. He may be nervous in the beginning but that’s the risk you have to take. You have to be in shape and he was in good enough shape to be selected.”
Bruyneel designated four key riders – Azevedo, Landis, Rubiera and Beltran – who will help Armstrong in the mountains.
“Azevedo is riding very strong and even in the Dauphiné (Libéré), where he wasn’t in top shape, he was always there with Lance and was able to attack sometimes,” Bruyneel said. “I am confident he will be a key rider in the mountains. Let’s not forget he placed fifth in the Giro (2001) and sixth in the Tour (2002). He can do a lot of work when we need him.
“As for Chechu (Rubiera), of course, we know what he is worth every year in the Tour. I trust he will be in good shape when the mountains arrive,” Bruyneel said. “Triki (Beltran) the same – we all saw what he was able to do last year. I hope he will be on the same level (this year) and even if he will be a little less, he will still be a good supporter in the mountains.
“Where we will improve is with Floyd. Don’t forget he came back last year from his hip fracture just a few months before the Tour and didn’t really play a role in the mountains.This year, he will. That will give us four support riders for Lance in the hills.”
Tour veterans with big motors — Ekimov and Hincapie — will provide key support during the difficult stages in the Massif Central and the transition stages between the Pyrénées and Alps.
Ekimov, the tough Russian who’s raced every Tour since 1990 except in 1999 when his team wasn’t selected to race, will be starting his 14th career Tour. Hincapie, meanwhile, is the only rider to be on all five teams that pushed Armstrong to Tour victory and will starting his ninth career Tour.
“I also looked to two guys you always know will be there – George and Eki,” Bruyneel said. “George even added support in the mountains last year. Eki will play his usual role in the team time trial and on the flat and rolling stages.”
Bruyneel said six of the eight spots were decided early on, with Hincapie, Ekimov, Beltran, Rubiera, Landis and newcomer Azevedo, tapped to replace the departed Roberto Heras, all but assured of a slot.
For the final two spots, Bruyneel said he selected Padrnos based on experience and Noval on fitness. Left out were Peña and Joachim, the Luxembourg rider who raced on Postal’s winner efforts in 2000 and 2002.
“For Pavel, I choose him for his experience. It was not an easy choice between Pavel and Benoit. For those two, they are basically in the same condition but I went with the experience of Pavel,” Bruyneel said. “Not selecting Benoit and Victor was a difficult choice as both of them were ready. I had to make sure we had a balanced team and I hope I made the right choice. I am confident I did, but it’s hard, as they are very disappointed not to have made the team. Everybody wants to go to the Tour, but I have to stand by my decision.”
Bruyneel said he made the decision alone, but consulted with Armstrong on the final nine-man roster.
“I talked with Lance about the selection,” Bruyneel said. “He didn’t want to make any decisions and agreed with my choices. He has a lot of confidence in this team.”
U.S. Postal – Tour de France
Jose Luis Rubiera
Victor Hugo Peña