Heading towards the first small hill of our first day, I was talking with new team member Tony Cruz. As we caught up on each other’s lives since racing against each other as juniors, I had to excuse myself for not answering his questions. I apologized, in a ragged voice, that after reaching the top of the hill I would resume our conversation. He played down the fact that while I was suffering, the team was climbing at a casual 20 mph! A hole in the pace line opened and he excused himself as he closed the gap. This left Bill and me to wallow in lactic acid as we shook our heads at how calmly these guys flew over the undulating Spanish countryside.
The big news for the Postal Service this year is the signing of Roberto Heras to the team. He was 2001’s mountain revelation in the Tour de France and winner of the Vuelta a Espana, Heras brought much needed strength to help Lance in the mountains of the Tour that year.
The magnitude of Heras’ signing did not hit me until we were rolling through a town early on during a training ride. The whole team went under a pedestrian overpass just as about 100 children crossed the bridge. Dressed in school uniforms and matching backpacks, the children went wild as they stopped in their tracks to watch us pass beneath them. Screaming and yelling out, “Andale-Roberto Heras, Lance Armstrong, Arriba, Arriba!” Bill and I looked at each other dumbfounded by the children’s enthusiasm as the team didn’t miss a beat tearing through traffic and into a large roundabout in downtown Carpe at a mellow 25 mph.
Bill and I were absolutely wasted after only three days of riding with the team. We awoke to aching, dead-tired muscles on the fourth day of camp. Lying motionless, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the other to attempt getting out of bed, Bill broke the silence, “Isn’t it amazing how much more fit these guys are? They are on a whole ‘nother planet. Did you see how Cedric and Benoit just coasted through those little towns, looking sideways at each other and chatting as if we were standing still? If people tried that on the club rides or even in the Cat. II races, bodies would be everywhere!” I nodded my head then winced; even my neck was sore from being in the drops for so long the previous day.
“And going up the hills,” Bill went on, “Heras and Rubiera just kept talking and cruising along like it was no big deal. Did you see that? I think that was right before you got dropped.”
I remembered the moment vividly. I cracked and slowed down before grabbing onto the team car. Dirk DeMol was driving and leaned over the passenger seat, to say to me, “We were wondering who would come off first? Your friend, he looks like a sprinter, but you … you surprised us. We thought you would be the climber!” As my lungs failed to adequately get oxygen to my muscles, or brain for that matter, I had no response. My 5’-8” frame and 150 lb. body seemed fit for a part time racer, but riding alongside the best pro cyclists in the world, I looked and felt like a chunk.
Over the top of one particular mountain, Bill had been gripping the car’s door and chatting with Alan the head mechanic when George Hincapie slipped back to grab some food and full bottles. Wanting to stay out of the way and feeling revived from the respite of the car, Bill let go and rode in the car’s draft.
As Hincapie came alongside the car, we were heading into the descent and the team was riding at around 30mph through some tight turns. He, in a word, was smooth. Every move I saw this guy make over the course of a week was like water. He flowed. From waiting for the elevator after dinner, to hopping off his bike at the end of a seven-hour ride, Hincapie was as graceful as Gene Kelly.
So the car heads into the first turn, a pretty tight one, and Hincapie has his left arm in the window and his right hand on the brake hood. He’s not gripping the hood, just resting his hand on it. He grabs some bottles but is not yet finished when he’s interrupted by the winding road. Staying glued to the car—and without a single unnecessary movement—he slides right through the tight right bend at about a sixty-degree angle, all the while his elbow still rests in the doorframe. Then he puts some food wrapped in foil into his jersey pocket, stands up out of the saddle, and bridges the gap from the car, not just to the back of the group, but all the way to the front, so as to lead the charge down the mountain.
“It’s hard enough just hanging onto the car going straight, much less a stunt like that,” Steve Swartzendruber, the Trek representative to the team, pointed out at dinner after Bill told us the story.