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.
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.
Written by James Newman
Illustrations by Bill Cass
Two working stiffs get the chance to live the life of pros during a 2002 U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team training camp in Altea, Spain.
It is always a shock for me to see how little pro bike racers are in real life. Almost horse jockeys, they’re tiny. Even George Hincapie, at over six feet, is rail thin and maybe weighs a buck and a half. While watching the team file out one by one for a morning ride, I couldn’t help but recite their names and accomplishments in my head. “Cedric Vasseur—solo stage winner and yellow jersey owner for a few days in the ’97 Tour; Viatcheslav Ekimov—Olympic Time Trial gold medalist; Jamie Burrow—World Cup under 23 Champion …” and on and on. But when Lance walked out from the hotel’s back lobby, last of the team’s 21 riders, he seemed huge. Not thick, or excessively muscular, just simply larger than life. I was beside myself. It didn’t seem real that I was going to ride with the whole U.S. Postal Service team for a week.
Just two weeks prior, my old racing buddy, Dylan Casey, who was in his third year as a pro with the First Division American team, asked me to come down from Portland to the Bay Area for a visit right after the new year. Knowing that riding with him alone would mean certain suffering for me, I enlisted another close friend, Bill Cass, into the scheme. After all, misery does love company.
“I can get out of the office for a week at the end of January,” Bill told me on our first Saturday club ride after the New Year.
“That’s no good, Dylan will be at training camp with the team in Spain at the end of the month,” I said. We rode on our fender-clad bikes in silence for a few minutes as the nearly freezing rain numbed our bodies even through multiple layers of high-tech fabrics.
Bill broke the silence, “Hell, let’s go to Spain!”
Bill is probably best known to you through the illustrations that used to grace the pages of Bicycle Guide and bicyclist; he keeps himself busy with a day job as a footwear designer for Nike and creates the Ride for the Roses poster used by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He and Lance stay in close contact; Bill developed the cycling shoes that the Tour de France champion has worn since his comeback from cancer. With the help of Dylan and Lance putting in the good word for us with team director Johan Bruyneel, Bill and I were given the green light. We boarded our plane after a minimum of planning, last minute training and, of course, talking our wives into our foolhardy plan.
I could clearly see that Lance Armstrong wass a leader and motivator. When the team is out training, Lance was in charge. Even from the back of the bunch where he spent the first half hour or so each day chatting with Bill or me, he called the shots. If someone didn’t point out a pothole, or stood up while pedaling and inadvertently shoved his bike backwards into the front wheel of the rider behind, Lance let him know. “Who owns that,” he asked as someone swerved while Lance hit the hole in the road. “Hey, take it with you,” he yelled as another of the riders stood up to pedal and Lance had to lean his front wheel into the other rider’s rear wheel to keep from crashing.
After those first few minutes each day with Armstrong, we never saw him again for the rest of the ride. Well, actually we could at times see him. If the road turned and we could make out the head of the group, there he was. Lance would stay on the front for nearly the entire ride. No matter how long the ride was, there he was—at the front, leading his team. Headwind, tailwind, uphill and down, Lance set the pace and rode like a motorcycle. He lead some of the smoothest, fastest five hour rides of my life.
That year the team had three camps instead of the usual two. The first camp was in Texas just before Christmas. A second camp in Tucson, Arizona was more business related and gave the press a chance to get interviews and photos of the team. The Spanish camp was designed solely for training the team of the reigning Tour de France champion. The swanky Hotel Metia Hills, which the Postal Service would be calling home for the next week, was, unfortunately, in a poor geographical location for cycling. The hotel and surrounding resort community sit atop a steep, mile-long climb. This simple “driveway” served to bring already broken men (Bill and me) to a state of groveling at the end of each day’s training ride.
End Part I