The Discovery Channel Goes Postal
U.S. Postal redefined how a Tour de France team should be built. But with new riders, new sponsorship, and new demands within the sport, can Lance and his teammates live up to their pedigree and grab a seventh yellow jersey?
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The Team Formerly Known as Postal faced a new challenge in 2005: the ProTour, a centralized realignment of professional cycling that requires the top 20 teams to compete in each of the sport’s 27 biggest races, including all three grand tours—Italy, France, and Spain—which Postal had never done. A single team might have two or three different squads competing around the world at any given time. So director Johan Bruyneel, backed by his new sponsors at the Discovery Channel, built a high-horsepower race machine straight out of Monster Garage.
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The new Discovery Channel team has 28 riders from 15 countries, including specialists in the one-day Classics and tour racers who will lead the team in Spain and Italy. But France remains the main focus, and six of the eight riders who helped Lance Armstrong to his sixth Tour victory will be back in July: big men George Hincapie (U.S.) and Pavel Padrnos (Czech Republic), along with climbers José Azevedo (Portugal), José Luis Rubiera, Manuel Beltran, and Benjamin Noval (all from Spain). But the departure of Floyd Landis to Phonak and the loss of flat-stage enforcer Viatcheslav Ekimov in a training crash left Armstrong without one of his best mountain men (Landis) and two key team-time-trial riders. The most likely new face will be former Giro d’Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli, 32, of Italy. But Salvodelli was signed in the off-season primarily for May’s Giro, so there is a question as to whether he can recover in time for July. Other options include two-time Tour rider Benoit Joachim, 29, of Luxembourg, or Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, 25, who Bruyneel believes could one day win the Tour himself.
As for Lance, after a longer-than-usual Shiner Bock–and–burritos off-season, he bailed out of the year’s first big stage race, Paris–Nice, citing illness and a lack of fitness. But he claimed to have some of the best training of his career later in the spring. And Discovery’s performance in April’s Tour de Georgia—where Armstrong finished fifth while helping his American teammate Tom Danielson, 27, to victory—suggested that Lance was back on track, that Discovery had another emerging star, and that the team would be primed for July.