U.S. Postal starts training in Arizona

A new-look Postal team is gearing up in Tucson  Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
Lance Armstrong, who survived cancer to become a two-time Tour de France winner, rolled into Tucson this week with his U.S. Postal Service cycling team for some training.

The professional cyclists will be here through Monday to get in some miles, meet new teammates, mingle with sponsors and plan their 2001 campaign. The team will begin competing in Europe in early February.

The Postal Service team trained in Southern California the past two years, but flood-like conditions there saw roads, and riders, soaked, said Dan Osipow, director of operations. The team decided this year to train in Tucson, arriving here Wednesday. It's the first time the team has trained in Tucson — and it may not be the last.

"The weather drove us away," Osipow said. "And we've chosen Tucson because the roads are great, and there is a strong cycling community."

But while the riders enjoyed sunny weather here yesterday, a storm moving in from California is expected to arrive here with cold, wet conditions by early today.

"This is great weather here," Tyler Hamilton said yesterday while pointing out his lack of cyclist's tan lines after spending his off-season at home in Marblehead, Mass. "If you have enough layers of the right clothes, it's OK to ride there."

The team's 21 riders, who include the internationally famous Armstrong, 2000 Olympic gold medalist Viatcheslav Ekimov from Russia and Roberto Heras, a new addition who won last year's Tour of Spain, went for an "easy spin" of 50 miles yesterday morning, riding through Saddlebrooke and Rancho Vistoso while followed by the team van emblazoned with Postal Service markings.

"I'm hurting," Armstrong said with a smile on returning to The Westin La Paloma resort, where the team is staying. "It was a good ride," he said before heading off for an additional hour of training while most of the team hit the showers.

"I'm tired — since Sydney, I've been tired," said a grinning Ekimov, as the Olympic champ adjusted the cleats on his new cycling shoes following the ride.

The camp is not just about riding.

Team members were fitted with new team uniforms and leisure wear, had publicity photos taken by Graham Watson, a photographer from England brought in for the occasion, got acquainted with new teammates and had a succession of meetings to plan for the upcoming season.

Armstrong was the target of autograph seekers, and golfers at the resort interrupted their rounds to approach the photo shoot to see whether Armstrong was still there.

But yesterday was not all work for the team.

Armstrong, after completing his individual publicity photos and signing a copy of his best-selling autobiography, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, for cancer sufferer Mark Whitten, rushed off to make a 3:10 p.m. tee time.

For the team's support personnel, the day started long before the riders arrived for training.

Three team mechanics, Geoff Brown, Juan Lujan and Vincent Gee, faced the daunting task of assembling 21 of the team's $5,000 Trek racing bikes before the 10 a.m. departure.

Brown used a compressor to air up the narrow racing tires to 110 pounds of pressure.

"In the Tour de France, we pump up 60 tires a day. That's a lot of up and down if you don't have a compressor," he said.

Freddy Viaene, the team's Belgian head masseur, was busy distributing clothing, making sure the riders had what they wanted to eat available and massaging tired muscles following training.

"The riders always need something," said Viaene, who is on the road about 250 days a year working with the cyclists, with a 15-hour day considered short.

Osipow said an important part of the camp is Champions Weekend, a chance for the team's many sponsors to meet, dine with and go on a ride with the pros. He said more than 100 sponsor representatives will be in town this weekend for the event.

Mark Gorski, part owner and general manager of the team, said winning the Tour de France, "the Super Bowl of cycling," will again be the team's prime objective this year.

The team has added several strong climbers to aid Armstrong in the event's high mountains, said Gorski, who won an Olympic gold medal in cycling in 1984.

Margot Myers of the U.S. Postal Service said her group is pleased with the benefits — financial and otherwise — resulting from sponsoring the team. So pleased, that the Postal Service recently signed on for an additional four years of sponsorship.

Myers declined to reveal the amount of the Postal Service's sponsorship, but said revenue earned by the sponsorship exceed the amount paid to the team.

Gorski said Tucson's good roads, varied terrain and active cycling community could bring the Postal Service training camp back next year — if the weather cooperates.

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