By Andrew Hood
Spanish climber Roberto Heras finalized his move to the Liberty-Seguras team on Wednesday when he signed a three-year contract.
Heras’ departure from Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team was confirmed last week by the American team. Heras had a year of his contract left to run and Liberty had to pay a 1.6 million euro buy-out clause.
Press reports in Spain say Heras will earn at least 1.2 million euros per season at Liberty, where he will be the number one rider after Joseba Beloki quit to join French team La Boulangere.
Postal, meanwhile, has signed up Portugal’s Jose Azevedo to replace Heras, who joined US Postal in 2001 after the American team bought out his contract with the Spanish Kelme team after his first Tour of Spain title.
U.S. Postal’s sport director Johan Bruyneel says everything is on track for Lance Armstrong to build for a run at a record sixth Tour de France title.
Bruyneel returned to his European base in Spain this week after spending eight days with Armstrong and U.S Postal teammates in Austin in the season’s first training camp. Speaking with the Spanish daily MARCA, Bruyneelsaid Armstrong is motivated “more than ever” for the looming season.
“He’s in better form now than he was this time last year. Physically,he’s strong and even though he hasn’t raced since September, there hasn’tbeen a week when he hasn’t touched the bike,” Bruyneel said.
Joining Armstrong in Austin were George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, VictorHugo Peña and David Zabriskie and Postal newcomers Patrick McCarthy,Ryder Hesjedal, Daniel Rincón, Benjamín Noval, Stijn Devolderand Jurgen Van den Broeck.
“They rode for three to four hours per day as well as did some gym work,”Bruyneel said. “It was a good atmosphere and the guys are already lookingforward to the season.”
Bruyneel said Armstrong’s 2004 racing schedule won’t be finalized untilnext month, but hinted that the Texan would likely skip Amstel Gold andLiege-Bastogne-Liege this spring so he can return to the United Statesmid-season.
Armstrong is expected to make his season debut at the Tour of Murciaand would likely start Milan-San Remo, with the obvious goal of makinga run at what would be a record-setting sixth Tour de France victory.
“The Tour is the only race that counts with Lance, even though thisyear there is also the Olympics,” Bruyneel said. “Lance has always said,and rightly so, that he never set his mind to win five Tours and equalthe record set by (Miguel) Indurain, but now he’s very motivated for thesixth now that the opportunities there.”
Beloki’s on the mend
Spanish star Joseba Beloki’s comeback continues on a positive noteas doctors this week removed the final rods that were holding togetherhis right elbow he smashed during his dramatic spill in July’s Tour deFrance.Beloki travels this week to join his new Brioches la Boulangere teammatesfor the second time for an early season training camp in France.Armstrong answers all in Q & A
Meanwhile, Armstrong recently wrapped up his annual December trainingcamp in Austin, marking his first steps toward the 2004 season and a runat a record sixth Tour victory.Armstrong’s staff at his official web page (www.lancearmstrong.com)ran this Q & A with the man on everything from his Tour buildup, hisracing schedule and his personal life. Here are excerpts:Question: You had your annual Austin training camp for the boyslast week – how’d that go?Armstrong: It went exceedingly well, the weather was beautifuland we were able to put in some good miles. Primarily, because of the weather,it was the best one yet. The new guys sync’d well and they look to be strong.Question: What was your reaction to the news that Roberto Heraswanted to leave USPS? Was that a surprise to you or had it been in theworks for a while behind the scenes and it all just came together quickly?Armstrong: I have to say that I wasn’t terribly surprised. Roberto’sa leader and had the opportunity to go and do that, plus get a longer termdeal. I wish him well.Question: The addition of Jose Azevedo looks on paper to be avery nice fit. There would seem to still be some funds left for anotherrider as well – is that in the plan?Armstrong: The ‘Ace’ does fit in well. He can climb, time trial,and is strong in the TTT. He’ll fit nicely. We may take another young Americanrider yet to be decided on.Question: Your private life has been in the mainstream mediaa lot over the last few months – how has that impacted you, or is thissomething that you’re more used to in Europe that is now spilling overto the USA?Armstrong: It’s tough to ever get comfortable with that typeof exposure. It is what it is, and I can’t really control it. People loveto get the ‘scoop’ so they have a job to fill. It’ll never change.Question: Gilberto Simoni and Jan Ullrich have recently calledyou out in the media, and while that wasn’t too surprising for Simoni,it did seem a bit uncharacteristic for Ullrich. What are your thoughtson what seems to be basic ‘trash talking,’ especially as it relates tothe professional cycling community?Armstrong: I don’t know and I honestly don’t give it much thought…like they say, ‘Believe only half of what you see, and none of what youhear…’Question: You have said that you wanted to do more training alonethis year in terms of preparing for the 2004 Tour. Is this to limit distractions,allow you to go harder – what’s the big benefit solo vs. training withothers?Armstrong: Solo time is time for me to think, dream, ponder andget clarity. Call it therapy if you will. I like it and prefer it for mostrides.Question: Looking ahead to the 2004 Tour course, it would appear- sans drama, of course – that the keys would be the first two real climbingstages in the Pyrenees – Stage 12 up to La Mongie and Stage 13 atop Plateaude Beille. Does a ‘statement’ need to be made there, do you think?Armstrong: A statement would be nice there; it’s worked in thepast. However, I suspect the competition will be deep in ‘04 and that couldprevent an early explosion. Both La Mongie and Plateau de Beille are veryhard, so at least that’s working in our favor.Question: What’s the latest on you doing the Tour of Georgia?Is it looking more or less probable?Armstrong: Unfortunately, I think it’s dead. So not good at all.Question: Will you be racing anywhere else in the US this yearor is there more a post-Tour focus on the Olympics (Aug 14 and 19) in Athens?Armstrong: We’re talking about doing the Tour of Gila (Apr 30- May 4) in western New Mexico – more to come.Question: Rumors still abound that if you win the sixth Tourand then do well in the Olympics, retirement can’t be far off – still rumors,or would that be a good way to go out?Armstrong: Well, that certainly would be a good way to go out,but I can’t make that call now. Lots of stuff still to do … like winningthe Tour. I suspect I’ll evaluate everything in August (2004) and thenmake my decision.