Where will the U.S. Postal Service team go in 2003?

US Postal team  Credit: Mike Powell/Getty Images
Conventional wisdom says theyve set the bar too high.

The United States Postal Service squad, currently ranked third in the UCI rankings, did what no other team did in 2002: placed two riders on the podium of two national tours. Neither Mapei-Quick Step, nor Fassa Bortolo, the two higher ranked teams, managed a podium finish in even one major tour.

Lance Armstrongs metronomic ability to arrive at the Tour de France in top form, paired with a superb effort from his eight teammates, resulted in his fourth consecutive win. He is now ranked second in the UCI individual standings, trailing only German sprinter Erik Zabel.

After lending Armstrong his climbing prowess for the main event, Roberto Heras put on his own end-of-season uphill show at the Vuelta a Espana, narrowly losing first place to time-trial ace Aitor Gonzalez on the final time trial.

Adding to the two sterling tour successes, count Armstrongs victories in the Midi Libre and Dauphine Libr stage races and his fourth place in Amstel Gold, Tom Boonens breakout third place at Paris-Roubaix, George Hincapies fourth at the Tour of Flanders, and Chann McRaes USPRO Championship win among the USPS team spoils.

Not a bad years work. Now, the inevitable can they do it again?

Considering the talent of Armstrong and Co., the easy, no-look answer has USPS maintaining status quo winning the Tour a fifth time to inscribe Lance in the record books, and continuing as Americas favorite European team.

The blueprint is certainly tried-and-true. If youre a glass-is-half-full fan, director sportif Johan Bruyneel will hit repeat and OLN will broadcast another year of USPS successes.

But the sport of cycling rarely offers up perfect scenarios to order, and for all USPS strength, plenty could go awry and knock off Armstrong and his highflying squad in 2003.

First, the pitfalls that could derail the mail-delivery squad; then onto the happy 2002 totals that predict another good year ahead.

What could go wrong

A letter to the editor caught my eye recently, one that could foreshadow a possible problem for the USPS team.

Will it be another predicable tour win for Lance? Doesn't this stuff get boring? a letter to Velonews questioned.

Now, its likely that many of Armstrongs fans have already spewed plenty of venom in this writers direction but the notion is exactly what USPS needs to keep in the back of their own minds. What is boring for a fan could easily translate to complacency for a professional cyclist accustomed to winning all the time.

No winning team stays on top forever, even the New York Yankees. Worse yet, repeated success has a nasty habit of breeding complacency look no further than a certain German star who won big and then started eating. Although its unlikely that Armstrong will let down his guard anytime soon one gets the feeling that he will train harder and win everything he sets his sights on, and then retire before his skills slide but the same winning vigilance might not be true for the rest of the team.

Hang out the cautionary flag in case anyone on the team daydreams about hitching a ride on the Armstrong express. Even with a superstar, the Tour de France is still a team sport, and one man alone cannot win. Maintaining a physical and mental razor-sharp focus will be a key for USPS in 2003.

If it isnt a lackadaisical approach issue for the USPS team, they might face another extreme: the hot seat.

USPS primary goal for 2003 will be, of course, the Tour de France. But unlike this past summer, Armstrongs possible fifth Tour victory carries with it the heavy mantle of history (not to mention 2004, should he manage five straight). Another Tour win will land Armstrong in the pantheon of greatness, joining only four other cyclists who have won five Tours.

Just three years after Miguel Indurain set what many felt was an unreachable new standard, Armstrong beat cancer and started his own, well-documented run. If Big Mig ruled the '90s; incredibly, Armstrong has taken the reigns of the first decade of the 21st century.

Thats not all. Armstrong said recently that he would race the 2003 World Championships to be held in North America in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada the first he will take part in a decade since his rookie gold medal in Norway in 1993.

Rainbow stripes and a fifth Tour in the same year would be a remarkable honor for the Texan, but it means extending his season much further than normal (Greg LeMond was the most recent to win both, in 1989 when the worlds were still held at the end of August, not the beginning of October, as they will be in 2003.)

"Nothing's set yet, but to take part in the race for the rainbow jersey in North America is a really an exciting prospect, Armstrong said at Interbike in early October.

"It means it will be a long season and that we'll have to plan it accordingly," he said. Up to now, Armstrong has, at least for competitive purposes, ended his season soon after the Tour de France. Talk of racing in Hamilton next year could cloud the picture slightly.

Another shot at a Heras Vuelta victory, this time perhaps with the assistance of Armstrong, and the persistent itch to get George Hincapie a Paris-Roubaix victory, will also crowd the teams priorities.

Taken together, these are big goals for one year. Throw in the mystical allure of setting history a major stress factor as the races count down to July and extending the team leaders season into late fall, and USPS would do well to watch their RPMs, lest they redline to a meltdown.

In past years, USPS has lost some of its top climbing lieutenants who graduated to other teams: Kevin Livingston, Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer, to name the big three. This off-season looks to be similar. Second-year rider Tom Boonen, trading on his third place at Paris-Roubaix, is considering leaving for greener pastures on the Lotto-Domo squad, even though he is still under USPS contract for next year. Boonens strength on the cobblestones would have given Hincapie a big boost in the spring classics. The rising star will be a tough loss on the one-day campaign front.

And then, of course, there is the competition. At the professional level, winning is separated from whining by very slight degrees of ability, training and luck. If a healthy Jan Ullrich returns with a new team, if time-trial ace Aitor Gomez, and perhaps a unified Spanish front of battle-scarred Spaniards ride as well in the Tour as they did in the Vuelta, Tyler Hamilton can step up from his success at the Giro to compete in the Tour ...

If this, if that. There are too many scenarios to list, but the competition all points at the same target: USPS.

Next: Part II no reason not to win

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