By Neal Rogers
The United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team presented by Berry Floor unveiled its 2004 squad Friday during its annual training camp in Solvang, California.
The media day began with a half-hour press conference with defending five-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, followed by a more casual, open-forum session with the remaining 24 members of the team. Absent was the team’s directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, whose wife delivered a baby girl on Tuesday.
Seated alone, a tanned and relaxed Armstrong sounded as determined as ever as he took questions from the 50-odd reporters, ranging from his condition and race schedule for 2004 to the team’s loss of 2003 Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras.
The first question was whether Armstrong’s training regimen had strayed a bit, as has been reported in the cycling media.
“For me, life is just as busy as it has been the past two or three years,” Armstrong answered. “Perhaps the profile of what I have been doing has changed, but I know what I’m doing, and I’m not sitting on the beach eating donuts every day as some people may think.”
Asked who should be considered the favorite for this year’s Tour, Armstrong couldn’t resist having some fun. “(Jan) Ullrich’s the favorite,” he replied. “I said that a month ago, nothing’s changed.”
With a laugh, he added: “I’ve been eating donuts since then, so I can’t all of a sudden be the favorite. Going to late movies and eating donuts and drinking beer, I can’t be the favorite.”
Regarding his race schedule, rumored to include a domestic stop at either the Tour of Georgia or the Tour of the Gila in April, Armstrong said: “We’ll be starting in Portugal, then to Murcia like we’ve always done … Milan-San Remo, perhaps, Criterium International, Bicicleta Vasca, and the Tour de France. As for a domestic race, we’re still working on that. There will definitely be a domestic race in April, either the Tour of Georgia or the Tour of the Gila.”
Meanwhile, he delivered a sharp criticism of the Tour organization’s decision to implement a 150-second time-loss cap in the team time trial.
“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.”
Armstrong was then asked about the departure of Heras and Christian Vande Velde to the new Liberty Seguros squad of former ONCE team director Manolo Saiz, and whether he had spoken with either man since.
“Roberto’s leaving was obvious,” Armstrong said. “He went to a Spanish team and he’s a big-time Spanish rider. What was an old team is really a new team with a new sponsor and an emphasis on bringing in somebody big. It was late in the year, and they had to make that move to keep the sponsor happy. He had the opportunity to leave, give up one year here but take three years with them, financially I think it was a good deal, professionally it was a good deal.”
“Christian’s situation was different,” Armstrong continued. “I don’t think it was necessarily tied so much to Roberto’s move, but just an opportunity to go somewhere where he feels like he has a chance to ride bigger races. He’s missed out on the Tour for a few years, obviously he wants to get back to the Tour, get back to the highest-level races.
“In both of those cases, it’s no hard feelings. We all still live in the same hometown in Spain, and things are fine, but I haven’t had conversations with either of them, since, before or after. After the Tour, the season stops, guys sort of go their separate ways. Once you spend 180 days a year with someone, at a dinner table and in bike races and on buses and on tables, when the season is done you just sort of leave and that’s it. We wish them well. Manolo is a good director, he’s a tough director, and so he’ll get the best out of them.”
Armstrong’s 2004 team is a big one, and he said that training rides have been divided into two groups: a faster spring-classics group and an easier-paced Tour cluster. Riders in the first group include Viatcheslav Ekimov, Floyd Landis, Ryder Hesjedal, Max Van Heeswijk and George Hincapie; the second group includes Armstrong, Jose Luis Rubiera, Manuel Beltran, Michael Creed and Damon Kluck.
American Dave Zabriskie, who was seriously injured in a high-speed collision with a car last summer, came in for some praise from the boss, who called him “one of the best talents we have.”
“He had terrible luck with his crash last year; I think it was probably a lot worse than people thought,” Armstrong said. “It really set him back, and if you’d start to talk to him and listen to the level of injuries he had, you’d be surprised that he is where he is. He’s a complete rider. He’s a strong time trialist, he can climb well, but now is the time for him to really make the leap to the next level. And I think he can. He’s one of the strongest guys at camp right now, from what I can tell.”
Regarding the current drug scandal surrounding Cofidis, a team that Armstrong signed with in 1996 prior to his battle with cancer, Armstrong replied: “It’s another controversy, another bruise, but I only know what I’ve read on the Internet, which is what everybody knows. But I can say it’s unfortunate, it’s bad for all of us. I think it’s like any scandal – it’s probably not as bad as they’re making it out to be.”
In regard to the 2004 Olympic Games, Armstrong reiterated that he intends to compete, although he is concerned about the immediacy of the scheduling – the Games begin less than three weeks after the Tour ends.
“It will be really difficult,” Armstrong said. “Twenty days after the Tour de France is probably the toughest period we have. The Tour is hard, and you need a period of recovery after that, and to get right back into another work cycle and try to come right back up for the Olympic Games will be really difficult.
“I think that potentially the best riders in the Olympics will be people who either skip the Tour or do only half the Tour and go home and refocus, or the people who use the Tour strictly as preparation. But for somebody riding all out, it could be too much to try and bounce back in 20 days.”
Finally, Armstrong was questioned about his plans for 2005 and beyond. Noting that the team’s sponsorship with the U.S. Postal Service ends at the end of 2004, he said much depends on whether that contract is renewed.
“A lot depends on the organization,” Armstrong said. “I would want to keep this organization going. I think for a final season I wouldn’t really want to venture out and go to a completely new organization in a different country, with a different style of racing, with a different style of running the program, with a different set of equipment, a different language … I can see myself racing in 2005, but it would have to be alongside Johan Bruyneel and these guys.”
And what about his life beyond bike racing?
“I learned along time ago not to try and envision life after cycling,” Armstrong replied. “That’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of energy, and it’s a waste of vision. My vision right now has to be on this year, and this Tour, and this season.
“I spent many years before I was sick trying to think about what I was going to do next, and it was just a distraction. I know what I’m going to this season, and I’m quite sure what I’m going to do next year, and they deserve the attention and focus I’m going to give them.
“Life after cycling won’t be complicated, and it won’t be as stressful as it is now, but I need to focus on bike racing right now.”
The United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team presented by Berry Floor 2004 Team Roster
Lance Armstrong (USA)
Jose Azevedo (Por)
Michael Barry (Can)
Manuel Beltran (Sp)
Michael Creed (USA)
Antonio Cruz (USA)
Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus)
Stijn Devolder (B)
Ryder Hesjedal (Can)
George Hincapie (USA)
Benoit Joachim (Lux)
Damon Kluck (USA)
Kenny Labbe (USA)
Floyd Landis (USA)
Patrick McCarty (USA)
Gennady Mikhaylov (Rus)
Benjamin Noval (Sp)
Pavel Padrnos (Cze)
Victor Hugo Pena (Col)
Daniel Rincon (Col)
Jose Luis Rubiera (Sp)
Jurgen Vandenbroeck (B)
Max Van Heeswijk (Ned)
Robbie Ventura (USA)
David Zabriskie (USA)