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Cruz-in’ at the Vuelta: The final stages.

Stage 17 I woke up pretty slow this morning. Benoit, who usually out sleeps us all, was out the door before I even sat up. The hotel we were in was the same one we stayed at during the Vuelta Murcia. The town of Murcia is very nice and they love cycling. After breakfast it was back to the room to stretch and watch Benoit doze in and out of sleep as the radio speaker in the bathroom blared out with Europop songs that never make it back home. Benoit woke up for a second, stared at me in wonder and said, "Man you stretch too much." Soon after we were downstairs and on our bikes to the

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By Antonio Cruz, U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team

Stage 17 I woke up pretty slow this morning. Benoit, who usually out sleeps us all, was out the door before I even sat up. The hotel we were in was the same one we stayed at during the Vuelta Murcia. The town of Murcia is very nice and they love cycling.

After breakfast it was back to the room to stretch and watch Benoit doze in and out of sleep as the radio speaker in the bathroom blared out with Europop songs that never make it back home. Benoit woke up for a second, stared at me in wonder and said, “Man you stretch too much.”

Soon after we were downstairs and on our bikes to the sign-in. On the team bus the mood was good and the meeting was short again. Telekom, we knew, was going to control the race for Zabel, so Johan wanted us to be the first team to throw it in the gutter after the main climb of the day.

I guess this stage is normally in the first week of the Vuelta and it’s always one that gets blown apart by crosswinds in the last 50km. We tried two times to put the smack down but didn’t have the whole team there and had to hold off. Telekom and Domo asked us if we were serious or just playing games. The third time was the charm. We went for it full force and I remember Levi yelling to keep going because the group was starting to split. We started to pick up even more speed once Kelme and Domo started to help out.

Johan was shouting words of encouragement with each time split given. The team was rolling like a runaway train, everyone at 100 percent. We came to the 15km-to-go arch still going strong. I vividly remember Santiago Botero jumping ahead of me in the rotation and ripping my legs off! He did it to me twice and I could see it coming again so I yelled at him to take it easy pulling through and he turned to me with his mouth closed as calm as could be as I struggled to pull past him. He was much more relaxed thereafter, I guess I showed him!?

With a few kilometers to go we had over a minute on the chasers and riders were starting to get positioned for the sprint, but when they passed us with no real team leading the bunch sprint I decided to go back to the front and pull as hard as I could for as long as possible. Our team had the most to gain and the more time we could gain on the chasers the better. Finally, we came to the last 500 meters and Robbie Hunter was first across the line to take the stage. The team’s hard work paid off with Roberto moving from 4th to 3rd over Mercado from Team Banesto. It was a good day and we plan to continue this way to Madrid. Weight: 64 kilos Breakfast: Spanish tortilla, bread, coffee, cereal,rice, raisinsDinner: salad, pasta, vegetables, steak, bread

Stage 18 We had a great breakfast with all the riders and directors content with the way things are going. You have to sit back and take these moments in, that’s my opinion anyway. I headed back to my room and sat out on the balcony that had a beautiful view of the square in Albacete. I did some stretching, got dressed and rode over to the sign-in. It was nice to hear the announcer call us the team that tore the race apart as we walked onto the stage.

After hanging out in the bus and getting instructions from Johan to have the whole team at the front we were off again with a 50kph neutral. I knew the other teams were pissed so we attentively rode the front waiting for the hammer to go down. Festina went to the front from Kilometer 0 but we were there too. It was a battle of teams again fighting for position in the crosswind. It continued like that for almost the whole stage but a breakaway did manage to go away. Team Domo was next to take the lead at the front to try and reel in the breakaway for their two men in the general classification.

Johan came on the radio asking for the team to drive the race all out through the town of Cuenca that would lead to the Category 3 climb. Cahn was the first to go for it and he must have been going really fast through this round about because the guy in second lost it through the turn trying to follow him taking out a few others. The rest of us made it up finally and went for it. I remember pulling off for a second and going again behind Casero as we started the climb. We came to the cobble section and still had a way to go before the top. I knew I had Roberto on my wheel so I had to wait for the next turn to accelerate around the outside and pull off so he could stay glued to the next wheel. Once over the top we started back down to the town 10km away. Our leaders made it into the front group. Out of the breakaway a Cantina Tollo rider made it to the finish first stopping before the line to kiss his bike in the name of world peace. It was a very noble gesture that will be talked about for years to come. Weight: 64 kilosBreakfast: bread, coffee, eggs, rice with honey andpeanut butterDinner: Salad, pasta, steak

Stage 19

Morale is still high and today’s stage looks very similar to the past two days. We stayed at a rustic hotel nine kilometers from yesterday’s finish. It was set in a place that was something like Moab in Utah with a lot of pine trees, rock formations, and high cliffs. On the way to the race in the bus we passed these high cliffs that supported the old part of the city. We were all kind off slow heading over to sign-in because of the rain that was just starting up. It was also very windy so we knew that today’s plan would be the same as in previous days and Johan confirmed that for us in the meeting.

I don’t know why they bother with a neutral start when they conduct them at race speed. We had our normal redline start and it was tough to see anything because of the rain. I was OK with the rain and the temperature wasn’t too cold.

We spent the first hour flying up and down the wide rolling highway. We finally slowed down again once the breakaway went up the road. Everyone seems to be a little less willing to fight at this point. A rider came up to me from Team Mapei and asked if I wanted to hear a joke. I said sure and he said look, here’s today’s race profile. I couldn’t help but laugh because it’s true. Whoever makes these up for the race needs their head examined. The speed ramped up again as three teams went to the front to pull for no apparent reason. We found out later that the race promoter told them they needed to do something since they had a poor showing thus far. Ouch!

Team Telekom took over soon so that Erik Zabel could take the last points for regularity on the stage. The breakaway made it to the finish with Cantina Tollo taking a second consecutive stage. The last 700 meter were up hill coming out of a left hand turn and man what a lead out Telekom made for Zabel. The bunch blew to shreds in less than 45 seconds. That wasn’t the way I was hoping to end the stage but oh well, I made it through another stage. Only two more to go. YES!!!

Stage 20 One last big effort before the climbs and my race is a done deal. I always want to be there at the finish of every stage of course. You have to do your job first and if the legs still have a little in reserve then you continue on at the front with your GC boys. Last night wasn’t very good for sleep and all the traffic noise outside our window didn’t help. My legs felt good though and weren’t sore.

The sky was dark gray and the temperature was slightly cooler than the day before. As I walked through reception on my way back from breakfast I noticed one of our soigneurs sitting alone reading the paper. I gave him a head nod and asked how it’s going. He said all was good and then looked past me to the reception counter. I turned and noticed the Spanish woman with green eyes who was pretending to be doing something too. I walked onto the elevator and gave him the thumbs up as the doors closed.

Yeah, it was back to my room to stretch and get ready for another hard day. At the start I took some more photos with the same guys from the motorcade. It’s almost a sure thing that he comes up to me before the start of each stage and says that we have the same name and that I must be his cousin. Then within just a few seconds each of them pulls out a camera and we’re at it again. On my way back from sign-in, this guy from Mexico stopped me. He told me I have to win the last stage. I said, “Come on man, I want to get through today’s stage first.”

He told me that I had to win and not to think any other way. Then the light came on and I realized that he thought I was Victor Hugo Pena. I told him my name and he looked at me as if I was trying to put one past him. I had to turn around and point out Victor for him and then he apologized and wished me luck anyway.

The team plan was to have everyone together at the front except for myself. I was to go in the early break. When the race got under way there was an immediate attack and they never let up for over an hour. I followed, jumped, sprinted, redlined, etc…until I couldn’t go for a bit. Benoit was kind enough to help me out without being asked and I recovered. I don’t think Kelme is very smart when it comes to controlling the race as they chase too many insignificant breakaways.

A group goes up the road without any of us in there and we have to chase with team Cofidis because everyone else was represented. After 10-15 kilometers we bring the escape back and I’m soon after more attacks. Another big group goes up the road but team Maia was taking control of this chase. We get within 100 meters of them and team Maia falls apart and their ace climber Moller goes across sparking a chain reaction amongst the main contenders. I look up the road as we head up this short climb and the group has split in half with no one from US Postal Service up there. Johan was on the radio in a heartbeat telling us to organize and bring that split back together! Roberto was on the radio too in a panic saying come on guys. We managed to join the group ahead with the help of a few other teams and those frightening visions of our Vuelta going down the drain were gone.

I was upset with myself and the way the team sat so far in the back of the group most of the day and could let such a situation happen. I went straight to the front and did not move hoping that all the other guys would follow suit. Lampre was at the front setting tempo for their super climber Simoni and Banesto too had interest on the stage win with Jimenez. The next climb was soon upon us and what a monster it was. We started up the cobbled section, which was very tough winding through town. We came to a left hand turn and bam — 17 percent of all out, get ready to traverse, wall of terror that was 600 meters long. Riders were going forward, backwards, side ways, and some nowhere at all! I made it over losing contact with the first 50 and then it happed again, BAM!!! Another 500 meters straight up and it was now time for survival mode because we still had over 10 kilometers to go. I could see a few of our guys just 10 seconds ahead of me but I was happy with my speed and half of team Telekom in my group. Close to the summit I was pretty blown and we still had two more climbs to go, one of which was the same one we just crested. These are the kind of days where you test your limits and learn what real suffering is about.

The second time around was much better and relaxed and I remember staring at the 7km-to-go banner and thinking, I finally made it, not much more to go. The last couple of kilometers were lined with spectators cheering and asking for a water bottle or hat. I threw my bottle out before the last bend and there it was, the finish line. What relief, what joy, what torture we put our bodies through, all in thename of sport. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Stage 21 This stage was more like an exhibition of teams. No teams to battle with, no attacks, no crazy fast neutral. Just each rider out on his own either hoping to put in one more result, defend your GC position, or perhaps advance as was the case for Levi. I decided this morning that it would be battle royale for bragging rights between myself and roommate Benoit. I have to thank him for letting me use his computer to write these e-mails. Many thanks Benny!

I went down and rode over to the time trial start ready to go for it. It sure is easier to ride hard without pressure. It’s just a different, more relaxed feeling that allows you to “just go for it” as our co-director Dirk Demol would say. I did 30 minutes of warm-up and rolled it over to the start.

When I came off the ramp I could feel that my legs were all about power and big gears. The idea of high cadence never crossed my mind.

The course wound through the streets of Madrid with six or seven climbs that ranged from 5 to 8 percent. I caught two guys within 20km and the next guy in my sights was Alex Zulle. That was crazy. Ex-Vuelta champion, amongst many other major victories, going down to me. I passed him all the way over on the other side of the street. I know these kinds of things have to be hard to take and I didn’t even glance over at him. The course was very well planned out and spectators were out in full force to cheer us on. I came across the line elated that I felt good in the time trial after three hard weeks of racing. It’s like I said before, you have to savor these moments, and I’m doing that right now. Not to worry honey, I’ll be in bed by 10:00. I still have to focus on the world’s.

Did I put AM or PM? Oh well, thanks to all who read these reports and a big shout to all my family and friends back in California, and the great friends I have across the nation! I’m very blessed to have all of you. Cruzer makes the Vuelta España, how about that!