Perhaps the luckiest rider on the entire U.S. Postal Service Team was Kenny Labbe. Having given up full-time racing 12 years ago after a promising junior career, Labbe took a job with the Postal Service as a letter carrier. Each day after doing his route in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, Kenny trained for the local racing scene. When The Postal Service began to sponsor a team in 1995, Labbe thought it a great coincidence that his employer was involved with pro cycling, and felt this would be his only shot at his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
“He e-mailed me every day for about two years,” team director Bruyneel explained. “Kenny kept me up to date on all the races he rode in the American mid-west. He told me how he trained and what an honor it would be to just be at a training camp with the team.” Bruyneel shook his head in disbelief. “ He was willing to take vacation time and even pay his own way to the camp in Santa Barbara last year.”
When the First Union Grand Prix series rolled around last spring, Labbe was called on by the team to help out with some of the chores of professional racing. “I’m a big boy,” Labbe crows, “If I can do one thing to help the team, it’s to offer a big draft for some of the guys. I’ll give up a wheel, or shag bottles all day if I have too. This is just a dream come true for me.”
There is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. On the hilliest day of camp, the team crisscrossed some of the highest mountains in southern Spain. Being built like a linebacker can help the team out in an American criterium, but on a day such as this, it was all about suffering for Labbe. All of the other riders’ remarks at the dinner table about his size and how much he eats must have been ringing in his ears as he labored over category one climbs used in past years of the Vuelta a Espana. At times taking turns with Bill hanging onto the team car, Labbe decided over one summit it was time to lead the team down the mountain.
Unfortunately, just as he sprinted past the group, fresh from hanging onto the car, the road pointed back up towards the winter sky. Hincapie jumped as Kenny went by and got the good draft. As gravity took its toll, Kenny slowed while the team raced past him. All the riders swept around him at a speed so fast, he was unable to get back into the draft of the pace line. When he looked over his shoulder for the team car, he found Dirk DeMol had swung the car into the opposite lane, forcing Labbe to dig within and fight to get back up to the group. He chased for quite sometime down the treacherous descent and along the valley floor.
After that same descent, Bill admitted that he was done. “We were going about 60 mph for the longest time,” he said wide-eyed. “Then we’d hit the brakes HARD going into the turns. I kept looking over the edge of the cliff and thought, ‘this isn’t even racing; this is just fun for these guys!’” He shook his head in disbelief of how casually the team put their lives on the line every day. “They all rode the same line down the mountains, all 21 of them in a single line. At the back there’s a lot less thinking of how to take the turns, but geez, I thought about my wife … and my baby … and my job; it was crazy. I ache from going down just as much as going up the mountains!”
As I suspected, the week went by faster than I thought. Bill and I were packing for our early morning departure home when Dylan walked into our room. He was dressed in his team-issue athletic pants, sandals and a soccer-style jersey with the Postal Service logo. His floppy Air Jordan hat covered his entire head, and he could barely see in front of him as he talked on his cell phone to his girlfriend back home.
For a second I flashed back to the days Dylan and I drove across the country as amateurs, sleeping in dive motels when we could afford to and in the back of his car most of the time. He smiled at me then nodded in amazement, “ Who would have thought we’d be here in Spain riding our bikes?”
“Who would have thought,” I answered back, equally amazed.