News feature, January 25, 2006
After winning seven Tours, a couple of Vueltas and a Giro d'Italia, Discovery Channel is one of the most successful teams in the peloton. But without Lance Armstrong, who retired last year, where do they go now? Mark Zalewski reports from the team presentation in Beverly Hills, California.
Coinciding with its celebrity nature, the 2006 Discovery Channel team presentation took place in Beverly Hills, California - right next to Hollywood on Tuesday. And the biggest stars of the team were on hand to tell the world what they have in store for 2006: winning races like Paris-Roubaix and contending for the overall in the Grand Tours.
Even though Lance Armstrong has hung-up the bike, he still remains as involved as ever, joining the team onstage and joining team director Johan Bruyneel in a press Q & A.
Right away, the questions came flying - who is taking over for Lance? "There is never a competition on the team who is going to be the leader. Everybody has his objectives. We have a strong leader for the Giro, he won the race two times. And a few strong riders who are going to support them there. There are three or four other riders who will have an opportunity to be a leader in the Tour de France. But there is never a competition within the team to decide who is the leader. I think everybody knows we have three or for guys who can be in the top ten. We will start with that goal. Then deciding on how the race goes - who is stronger than the other, what the race situation decides. In general, the problem is solved by the race."
Those four riders tapped by Bruyneel consist of George Hincapie, José Azevedo, Jose Luis Rubiera and Yaroslav Popovych. "George is definitely going to be one of our strong guys," Bruyneel said. "He showed last year that he was able to be on the front working for the team. He has improved his climbing, and his time trialing is going well. And with his experience and knowing he can do it, he will go a long way. We have Azevedo who was fifth or sixth in the Tour de France. We have a young rider who finished 12th in his first Tour de France, Popovych. I think he can be very good. And maybe even Chechu Rubiera. In general those four guys will be our top guys, and then the race will decide who is our top guy."
Many analysts and experts have been touting Tom Danielson as the next Lance, but those people will have to wait another year to see the up-and-coming American ride in The Tour. "Tom will not ride The Tour... [he] will ride the Giro. We have Paolo showing he can do it, so we bring a team to the Giro in support of him. But Tom has shown he can finish high and he looks stronger than last year. We shouldn't rule him out for him overall."
As for The Tour de France, Bruyneel is being cautiously optimistic in his first season without Lance - and is going to use the fact that many view his team as underdogs to his advantage. "We have had responsibility of the race for seven years and the other teams were in a very comfortable position. I think it's time for us to take that position, at least for one year, and see how it goes."
Lance echoed Bruyneel's thoughts as well. "I think it's better that we downplay our chances in the Tour. As Johan said, to cherish this role as an underdog. We haven't been in that position for a long time. That is the perfect way to ride that race."
While many other races might suit Discovery Channel better now with this slate of riders, the Tour is still THE Tour for Bruyneel. "It's still a focus. We've won that race seven times in a row and the situation has changed, but I'm still not prepared to not win it. The chances are less, sure, but as long as there is a chance, we will try it. There are definitely other races - the Giro, the spring classics - we came pretty close to Paris-Roubaix, and if we keep trying, one year it has to be possible to win it. There is a new race this year, the Tour of California, which is a goal for us. But the Tour is the Tour, and I think we will have a team that can do really well there."
Speaking of the Tour of California, Johan did announce his team for the upcoming stage race. "Tour of California is an important race for us. The course is great and we are going to bring a strong team. The most important guys are going to be George, Tom Danielson, Ekimov, Paolo Savoldelli, and then Vladimir Gusev, Brajkovic, Jason McCartney and Michael Barry."
The burning question for Lance, from the assembled press (and probably from the Las Vegas oddsmakers) is who he is picking to win in 2006. And after acknowledging his team was sitting in the room, Lance gave his early nod to Ullrich. "On paper, it's between Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso - between T-Mobile and CSC. It's going to be incredibly interesting. What I found really interesting is Jan looking completely different than what he has looked like in past Januarys for the last seven, eight or nine years. This is the guy who has clearly got a new motivation and new perspective on his sport. The course suits him - a lot of time trials and not particularly hard in the mountains. I think he wins.
"As an athlete we know he is in the last year of his contract and things come along to motivate. You put all these things together and it makes for a different athlete. His team is strong, he has the experience, he's not getting any younger - I think he realizes that time is running out for him, whereas Basso is younger. It's really now or never for Jan."
Lance's new role
While Lance will certainly be busy fulfilling his contractual obligations to the Discovery networks, he says he still will stay closely involved with the inter-workings of the team he helped build from the ground up. "I am still a fan, still an addict when it comes to following cycling and following the progress of the boys. That hasn't changed. This partnership and relationship hasn't changed either. It's an interaction constantly, on a daily basis. [Johan and I] are still speaking together about the riders, the plans, the training - how they are looking, how they are not looking. I think it's important to maintain some consistency there. We can pull me out of the equation and put somebody else in and it could still almost work. I'm always there. We are both type A and are both asking questions and comments."
Regarding his role come July, Lance indicated he will be involved in variety of capacities - from sponsors to cheerleader to tactician. "I'll be participating, whether I am watching at home or with Johan in the car."
As for his relationship with the race itself, Lance replied, "My relationship with Jean Marie, that's all really irrelevant because when it comes to the event in July, I still really love the race. And I still think it stands for everything great in world cycling. I'm still a fan of that regardless of what's gone on. I plan on being there to support the team - keep in mind this is like a family for me. I am still thrilled to see the guys and go on a ride with them on Saturday. You can't do something for fifteen years and then just leave."
Same training camp, different year
When asked if not having Lance at the team training camp made a significant difference, Johan chuckled and said, "It's not a whole lot different. We have the same races at the beginning of the season. We have one group that is preparing for the classics. Lance is not there, but everything else is the same. They go a little faster this year, because Lance was a touch out of shape last year!"
This news of a faster spin during the ride perked Lance's ears, resulting in a reply, "They better slow down on Saturday!"