By Dan Osipow
When Lance Armstrong begins the final race of his professional career on July 2 at the 92nd Tour de France, the six-time Tour winner’s teammates will include most of the squad that assisted him to his win last summer and two newcomers to the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team.
Tailwind Sports has announced the eight teammates that will join Armstrong on the start line in Fromentine in 10 days American George Hincapie, Spain’s Jose Luis Rubiera, Manuel Beltran and Benjamin Noval, Pavel Padrnos of the Czech Republic, Portugal’s Jose Azevedo, Italian Paolo Savoldelli and Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych.
Reigning Tour of Italy champion Savoldelli and Popovych, third at the 2003 Giro, are first-year team members.
“I think we have fielded our strongest team ever with this formation,” said Armstrong. “It has many consistent elements from years past, like the Spanish armada for the climbs, strong guys like George, Pavel and Benjamin, the Giro winner in Savoldelli plus a guy like Popo (Pop-ovych) with a very bright future.
“I look forward to leading this team and attempting to give the great folks at Discovery a yellow jersey. I’m more motivated than ever.”
The Discovery Channel team’s sports manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has directed Armstrong to all six Tour victories, said the roster has great experience and familiarity to the Texan.
“I wanted an experienced team for Lance’s last Tour and that was the determining factor,” said Bruyneel. “I want him to be surrounded by guys who have always been around him. It’s a team with just two new riders with the rest returning from last year. All are ready or are getting ready.”
Bruyneel added: “It wasn’t difficult to choose. The group that rode at the Dauphine Libere (Azevedo, Beltran, Hincapie, Noval, Popovych and Rubiera) showed me they are at a good level while Paolo and Pavel did a great job in the Giro. Paolo was never in doubt (to ride the Tour), especially when he won the Giro, and is such a great rider. Pavel did a very good job in the Giro riding for Paolo and is very strong. For me, it was an easy selection.”
Of the eight teammates, only Hincapie has raced alongside Armstrong for all six Tour victories. Next highest is Rubiera with four (2001-2004) and Padrinos with three (2002-2004). Beltran has taken part in Armstrong’s last two Tour victories while Azevedo and Noval raced with the team for the first time last year.
“When making the selection, it’s a matter of finding a balanced team,” said Bruy-neel. “I think we have guys for everywhere - the flats, those that will work in the hard stages and guys for the mountains.”
Does Bruyneel agree with Armstrong’s feelings that this lineup - with two time Tour of Italy champion Savoldelli, last year’s fifth place finisher at the Tour de France in Azevedo, climbing stalwarts Beltran and Rubiera, an on-form Hincapie and the promising Popovych, winner of this year’s Tour of Catalunya - is his best Tour team ever?
“I’ll confirm that on July 24,” said Bruyneel. “On paper, it’s a super team. But of course, we are missing (Viat-cheslav Ekimov) he would definitely be on the team if he was healthy.”
Ekimov - a member of the last five Tour winning teams and possessing 14 Tour finishes - severely injured his back in training crash in late April and is hoping to race again before the end of the season.
“I will miss Eki dearly this time around but I plan on riding the race with all the toughness he has shown over the years,” said Armstrong.