There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Imagine that the Olympic Games happened—or next week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge took place—and no one came to watch. There’d be no applause as the racers came through the towns, no camper vans massed on the climbs, and no one banging the billboards along the finish straight. You might say, so what? Ninety percent of the world’s racers don’t have crowds watching them; they just ride for fun. But at the elite pro level, it’s the synergy between the riders and the spectators that creates the event. Without the fans, a race would lack the energy and excitement that we tend to take for granted.
Take the Olympic men’s cross-country race last Sunday at Hadleigh Farm in the Essex countryside east of London. A capacity crowd of some 20,000 spectators lined the challenging course that gave rise to one of the best mountain-bike races in the sport’s history. As with every other event at the London games, the home fans were hoping that a British athlete would be on the podium, but when their best hope, Liam Killeen, crashed out with a broken ankle they warmed to a superb race between pre-race favorite Nico Schurter of Switzerland, world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Italian dark horse Marco Fonda.
The roar of the crowds all around the course undoubtedly inspired the three Europeans to ride harder than they’ve ever ridden before. The faster they raced, the louder the cheers. And the louder the cheers, the faster they raced. Without such great support, Fonda may not have been so doggedly brave, after he lost his seatpost, to ride the whole final lap out of the saddle to hang on to the bronze medal. And Kulhavy may not have kept chasing back when Schurter kept on accelerating and the Czech may not have been ready to jump past the Swiss in the dying seconds to take gold.
That was the perfect example of how a crowd can both make racing more thrilling and influence an event’s outcome. Other crowds, including the wall-to-wall mob that lined the barriers from start to finish of the Olympic time trial two weeks ago, can add tremendous enthusiasm to an event and increase the enjoyment level for both themselves and the riders. Top time trialists normally operate in a world of their own, focusing totally on their pedal cadence and power output, the next bend in the road and the rider they’re catching. But having crowds urging you on adds a major element to your performance.
Around the Hampton Court Palace course on August 1, the constant encouragement of the hundreds of thousands spectators was an element that transcended a rider’s internal forces. Gold medalist Brad Wiggins said, “The noise was incredible. I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career.” And his British teammate Chris Froome, who claimed the bronze medal, said the crowds “weren’t just cheering, they were screaming our names.”
There was an informal comparison of sound levels at the various Olympic venues. Not surprisingly, the decibel counts were loudest at the indoor arenas, with one or two bouts at the 10,000-capacity boxing arena just out-scoring the most exciting races at the 6,000-seat Olympic Velodrome. Judging by the huge popularity of the track cycling in London—despite the lack of the individual pursuit and the often harsh application of arcane sprinting rules—this branch of the sport is making a strong comeback. Indeed, world road champion Mark Cavendish, who was on the BBC television commentary team at the velodrome, was so enthused by the racing that he said he will make an actual comeback to the track with a view to contesting the team pursuit and six-race omnium for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
It was instructive that the track racing in London lasted for six days, the same as traditional six-day races, which may have lost much of their luster in recent decades but remain one the most potentially popular branches of bike racing. Anyone who has attended a European six-day race (including London’s Skol Six that introduced many British fans to track racing during the 1980s) knows that a well-staged “six” that’s contested by a variety of two-man teams, including sprinters and stars of the Tour de France, can be more entertaining than any other form of racing.
Today, few remember that road riders such as Eddy Merckx gained a lot of their finishing speed by racing on the six-day velodromes, while both Wiggins and Cavendish won Belgium’s prestigious Ghent Six in an early phase of the pro careers. So, following the track’s massive popularity at the Olympics, six-day races could be added to the track racers’ still-limited annual schedule of World Cup races, world and continental championships, and the occasional specialty events such as the Revolution races held at British velodromes.
The interplay between the racers and the fans is a vital part of track racing—no one would want to race in any empty arena! Everyone wants the crowds to be as big as those that watched the London Olympic road races and the ones that we’ll likely see on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain and Denver’s time-trial circuit at the USA Pro Challenge in a few days’ time.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
When the Olympics were last held in London 64 years ago, there were just three track cycling events: the match sprint, the one-kilometer time trial, the tandem sprint and the team pursuit. Great Britain came away with two silvers and two bronze medals, which thrilled the home crowd because it equaled their total medal haul from the previous three Olympiads. But it was a far cry from what British trackmen achieved at the first London Olympics, in 1908, when they won five of the six golds.
Track racing was the main form of bike racing in Britain from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century. Massed-start road racing was considered too dangerous by the authorities in Victorian times and the races were moved to the big outdoor velodromes—including Herne Hill, the 500-yard oval built in 1891 (where the 1948 Olympics would later be held). When all its best cyclists were racing on the track, Britain was supreme at the 1908 Olympic events (held in the main Olympic stadium at White City). But when road time trials became organized on a national basis by the 1920s, track racing lost its former luster; and it faded even more when road racing became legal in Britain after World War II.
Track racing didn’t start to make a strong comeback until Britain’s first modern indoor velodrome was opened at Manchester in 1994. Since then, the success of the country’s track cycling program has been defined by the number of medals earned at the past four Olympics: 1996 Seoul (0), 2000 Sydney (4, including 1 gold), 2004 Athens (4, including 2 gold), and 2008 Beijing (11, including 7 gold). And now we have London 2012 and Great Britain’s almost total dominance.
The experts said it couldn’t be done, that one nation could virtually sweep the Olympic track cycling for the second time. And yet, despite wholesale changes in the track program from Beijing to London, including only one starter per nation, Great Britain claimed seven of the 10 gold medals this week (along with a silver, a bronze and a disqualification in the other three events). To see the dumfounded look on the faces of the crack French sprinters and Australian pursuiters, and to hear their coaches’ dire claims about the Brits’ magic wheels, hot pants or other secret strategies, you would think that the end of the world was nigh.
When watered down, the French and Aussie lament went something like this: “We’ve beaten the British in the world championships and World Cups for the past three years, so how come they’re so much faster this week?”
Dave Brailsford, the supremo of British Cycling and Team Sky whose resources were copiously used by his track racers, simply replied that their goal all along was to peak for the Olympic Games—and that’s what they did. Brailsford pointed out that that’s what his road team already achieved last month at the Tour de France.
In the road team’s case, it was total focus on getting his riders to top form at high-altitude training camps, where they rode at higher power levels than they would at the Tour itself. For the Olympic track team, it’s clear that the British athletes training and preparation (including all the technical, psychological and nutritional aspects) has been at a higher level than that of any other country.
The intensity of that training was emphasized by Sir Chris Hoy, triple gold medalist in Beijing, who said this last winter about the team’s work-out drills: “We’re used to working hard on the track, road and gym, week in week out, but [the lactic-acid-tolerance] drills on the turbo [trainer] stand alone in terms of pain. After the full set of sprints, which are interspersed with very short recovery times, I usually collapse into a heap on the crash mat next to the bike.”
Some of the British athletes, who trained just as hard as Hoy and his teammates, didn’t even get to ride at the Olympics. One was Wendy Houvenaghel, who earned a silver in the individual pursuit four years ago. When her event was replaced by the team pursuit, she became an integral part of the squad, but she wasn’t selected for the final three in London—even though she was on top form.
In her absence, Laura Trott, Joanna Rowsell and Dani King twice broke the world record in their journey to the gold medal. Tellingly, Houvenaghel, who was unhappy with her non-selection, later revealed, “We had done faster times in training in Newport the week before with me in the line-up.” In other words, in their final training sessions at the covered velodrome at Newport in South Wales, the British pursuit team raced faster than world-record pace. That’s like the Team Sky riders riding harder at training camp than they raced at the Tour.
After France’s multi-time world sprint champion Grégory Baugé was beaten by Britain’s Jason Kenny in the men’s sprint final, he was so mystified by his loss that he resorted to asking Kenny in the post-final press conference how the Brit improved so much between the world championships and the Olympics. Kenny didn’t give much of a reply, but it was instructive to learn from Kenny that his coaches were studying video of his opponents’ races and updating their tactical plans before each of his sprints.
That could also prove a handicap if that opponent doesn’t race according to plan. That was the case in the women’s sprint final on Tuesday, when defending champ Victoria Pendleton was the odds-on favorite to beat the Olympic 500-meter time-trial gold medalist at Athens in 2004. After Pendleton was relegated in their first heat after leaving the sprinters’ lane, Pendleton seemed flustered by Meares’s second-heat tactic of rolling to a near halt (reminiscent of the track stands the Aussie once used before they were banned). Pendleton clearly didn’t have the same track-standing skills as Meares and was forced to take the front position, and she wasn’t prepared to lead out the final sprint and had no answer to the Aussie’s come-from-behind effort.
But the lasting image of these track Olympics came from the very final race, the men’s Keirin, which Hoy won with one of the greatest shows of power, speed and perseverance that even his has ever shown. It was a superb ending to an Olympic week that saw the Scot become the first Brit to win six career gold medals. And he surely won this sixth gold with that intensive wintertime preparation that saw him “collapse into a heap.”
Hoy and his teammates’ success this past week also reflected their country’s heritage for track cycling that first emerged a century ago, and is now back to its brilliant best.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
A year ago, after Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France, his Sky team’s directeur sportif Sean Yates muttered to no one in particular: “Game over, i’n’ it?” It was game over for that Tour as far as GC was concerned, though Sky’s Norwegian star Eddy Boasson Hagen did take two stage wins. And that was a big improvement on the British super-team’s lackluster 2010 debut when there were no stage wins and Wiggins was its best finisher in 24th overall.
The disappointment of those two Tours was part of Sky’s steep learning curve. Team boss Dave Brailsford and his legion of behind-the-scenes operatives kept their ambitious goals, but they adjusted their preparations. In particular, Brailsford hired an altitude-training expert and began sending his key players (Wiggins, Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Chris Froome) to training camps in the Canary Isles, where they put in thousands of feet of climbing every day at varying speeds and intensities, ate the best foods, and developed an uncanny bonding for the races ahead.
The results were immediate. Sky put Froome (second) and Wiggins (third) on the podium at the 2011 Vuelta, and this year the team scored a succession of stage-race victories for Wiggins at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphine. Sky was so dominant at the Dauphiné (including second overall for Rogers, and fourth for Froome) that Wiggins came into this year’s Tour as the odds-on favorite. But translating that good, season-long form into a three-week-long peak for the Tour was uncertain, especially as the best British results in 98 previous Tours were two fourth places (Robert Millar in 1984 and Wiggins, when he was riding for Garmin-Slipstream, in 2009).
The world now knows that Sky achieved its initial goal of a Brit winning the Tour within five years; and now Brailsford is out to conquer the rest of the cycling world, by targeting all three grand tours in the same year and then winning all of the monumental classics. But for now, let’s just take stock of what Sky and the other teams achieved at this 99th Tour de France, in terms of riders who confirmed their talent and those who were true revelations.
Brad Wiggins (GB), 33, Sky
No one in the history of cycling has previous succeeded in sweeping Paris-Nice, Romandie, Dauphiné and Tour in the same year—though that still doesn’t compare with what Jacques Anquetil achieved from March to July in 1963 (when the French legend won Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a España, Dauphiné and Tour), or what Eddy Merckx did in the first half of 1970 (winning Paris-Nice, the Giro d’Italia and Tour, along with Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flèche Wallonne and the Belgian national title!). Even so, Wiggins’s 2012 season (which might also include an Olympic gold medal next week!) has been unprecedented in modern cycling. The highlights of his Tour included his first-ever stage wins (both long time trials) and third places at the Planche des Belles Filles and Peyragudes summit finishes. But the biggest plus was his consistency over the whole three weeks and the total solidity of his Sky team.
Vincenzo Nibali (I), 27, Liquigas-Cannondale
This charismatic Italian had previously won the Vuelta and twice finished on the Giro podium, but his podium spot at the Tour brought him new stature. Despite the disadvantage for him of 100-plus kilometers of time trialing, Nibali never gave up and his third place was a huge improvement from his previous best of seventh in 2009. For sure, he was a victim of Sky’s catenaccio-style defense, but he still managed to stretch the British team with his accelerations on the mountaintop finish at La Toussuire.
Jurgen Van den Broeck (B), 29, Lotto-Belisol
This ever-improving Belgian climber was one of the few consistently aggressive riders in the 2012 Tour and fourth place overall was his just reward. Especially as his Lotto team was more focused on getting stage wins for German sprinter André Greipel, so Jelle Vanendert was Van den Brouck’s only true ally in the mountains.
Mark Cavendish (GB), 27, Sky
The world champion played a back seat to teammates Wiggins and Froome for most of the Tour, and yet Cavendish again confirmed his stature as the Tour’s fastest-ever sprinter by becoming the first man to win four consecutive stage wins on the Champs-Élysées and bringing his total of career stage wins from 20 to 23—one more than the previous record for a sprinter set by Frenchman André Darrigade a half-century ago.
Thomas Voeckler (F), 33, Europcar
His Tour couldn’t have started in worse circumstances, having barely recovered from a knee injury, being the center of an investigation by the French judiciary into alleged doping, and getting booed by many of his French fans. But Voeckler showed that his long spell in yellow last year was not a fluke by recovering his top form to win two stages, the first from a disparate breakaway at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine and the other with a long solo break through the Pyrenees to Luchon—which saw him claim the climbers’ polka-dot jersey that he ably defended till Paris.
Pierre Rolland (F), 25, Europcar
This ambitious young Frenchman last year astonished the world by winning at L’Alpe d’Huez and placing 10th overall at the Tour. Rolland again surpassed expectations this month by winning the tough alpine stage to La Toussuire and moving up to eighth overall. But his poor time trialing (only 64th last Saturday at Chartres) probably means that he’ll never be a podium contender.
Chris Froome (GB), 27, Sky
In only his second Tour (he placed 84th on his debut at age 23 for Team Barloworld), this Kenyan-born Brit showed that his runner-up spot at last fall’s Vuelta was a true indication of his abilities, and his placing second overall to team leader Wiggins at the Tour was nothing less than sensational. Froome clearly has to learn more about team etiquette; but his climbing stage win at La Planche des Belles Filles, ahead of defending champ Cadel Evans, and his second place to Wiggins in the two long time trials mark him as the strongest candidate to win a future Tour—maybe even next year.
Tejay Van Garderen (USA), 23, BMC Racing
The die was cast for this confident young American’s future when he signed a big contract to move from HTC-Highroad to BMC this year, and he more than confirmed his potential at this Tour. After placing 81st in his Tour debut last year, Van Garderen exceeded even his own high ambitions by placing fifth overall (ahead BMC team leader Evans), winning the best young riders’ white jersey, and taking fourth places in both the prologue and first long time trial. His big breakthrough marks him as America’s best hope to win a future Tour.
Peter Sagan (Svk), 22, Liquigas-Cannondale
What can you say about a young man who came into his first Tour already with 13 wins in 2012 and cruised through the three weeks like a veteran to take three stage wins (and three second places) and the green jersey? His Liquigas team didn’t push Sagan in the mountains but he still proved a valued aid to team leader Nibali, and no one would be surprised should the Slovak phenom drop the baby fat and win the yellow jersey in three or four years’ time.
Thibaut Pinot (F), 22, FDJ-BigMat
Very few people outside of French cycling had even heard of this youngest rider in the Tour before he emerged as one of its foremost climbers. Insiders knew about his three mountaintop victories in his rookie 2010 season (on the Ballon d’Alsace and Grand-Colombier in France and at Presolana in Italy), but not even his biggest fans had expected Pinot to take a solo win on the Porrentruy stage (after ditching the rest of a breakaway on the 17-percent slopes of the Col de la Croix), placing second at La Toussuire and fourth at Peyragudes, to finish 10th overall. He could be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Hinault in 1985.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.
Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.
Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.
With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.
I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”
Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.
In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.
For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
For most of the past century, the Olympic Games weren’t a big deal in the cycling world. Only amateur bike racers could compete and they regarded the Games as a small stepping-stone toward the professional ranks. That began to change at Atlanta in 1996. Pro racers took part for the first time and their superior level of fitness was demonstrated by four Frenchmen, who’d just finished the Tour de France, getting together to win the track team pursuit. And the pros, led by Swiss champ Pascal Richard, swept all the medals in the men’s road race.
Since then, the prestige of winning Olympic gold medals in cycling was raised progressively by high-profile road race winners Jan Ullrich (Sydney 2000), Paolo Bettini (Athens 2004) and Samuel Sanchez (Beijing 2008). Our sport’s high profile has become personified by two multi-Olympic champions, British sprinter Sir Chris Hoy and French mountain biker Julien Absalon, who are household names in their respective countries.
Even the road time trial, started in 1996, has grown in stature thanks to its defending champion Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss superstar has again targeted the Olympic TT as a major goal, the same as Germany’s world TT champion Tony Martin. And their likely challengers include multi-time world pursuit champs Brad Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, now that their favored track discipline has been eliminated from the Olympic program.
A mark of the status held by cycling with the International Olympic Committee is the fact that the whole Games’ event schedule, for the third time, is being kicked off with the elite men’s road race. After the Athens circuit around the Parthenon, and the Beijing course to the Great Wall of China, London will see a start-finish outside the Queen’s Buckingham Palace with a route south to the Surrey Hills and nine laps of a scenic loop over and around Box Hill.
The race will not only showcase many of London’s most historic and beautiful sites, but also feature the very best classics riders in pro cycling. So, even though many of them are building up to what promises to be a fascinating Tour de France, they are looking beyond racing for yellow jerseys in Paris to shooting for gold in London. And the media hype has stepped up considerably since national federations announced their long teams for all the Olympic cycling events last week.
The focus to date has been on Britain’s home team of medal contenders, headed by world champ Mark Cavendish for the road race and Wiggins for the time trial. The two Team Sky leaders, like their team manager Dave Brailsford, believe that the road to Olympic gold is via the Tour—as do potential medal contenders such as Australia’s Matt Goss, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, Germany’s André Greipel, Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Spain’s Sanchez, Switzerland’s Cancellara and Tyler Farrar of the United States. Those not risking the Tour’s potential perils to focus totally on July 28’s Olympic road race include sprinters Tom Boonen of Belgium, Daniele Bennati of Italy and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Selecting teams for London has been tricky because the strongest nations can field only five riders, as opposed to eight for regular one-day classics; and one of each country’s selection also has to start the time trial four days’ later. Ideally, a team will have a leader who can sprint well at the end of the tough 250-kilometer road race, along with support riders who can chase down breaks that will inevitably form on the many narrow, twisty back roads that precede and follow the nine laps of the hilly 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the London course.
For the United States, much has been made of the fact that veterans George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie separately contacted USA Cycling this summer, saying they did not want to be considered for the Olympic road team. But with Farrar already the designated leader since he became the first American sprinter to win a Tour stage last year, and with all four of the veterans being stage-race specialists, there was no compelling reason to select them. For instance, Hincapie hasn’t raced the worlds for the past four years (and he was only 39th in the Beijing Olympics), Leipheimer hasn’t started a worlds road race for eight years, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie last rode the worlds in 2010 (placing 79th and DNF respectively).
It has been speculated that the four riders recused themselves because they may be witnesses in the USADA-alleged doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team during Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winning years. But neither Leipheimer nor Zabriskie raced for Postal at those Tours. And though Leipheimer did race with Armstrong at the 2009 and 2010 Tours (on the Astana and RadioShack teams), which USADA alleges were also “suspicious” years, among his teammates was Chris Horner, who has been selected for the London Olympics.
In any case, Horner’s credentials for the 2012 Olympic team are far stronger than those of the four other veterans. Horner is one of the few Americans to have placed top 10 at one-day races as diverse as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the worlds’ road race, and he will be an invaluable aid to Farrar and the three younger members of the London Olympics squad: Tim Duggan, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen.
As for these three, Duggan has proven himself this year as a powerful domestique for the Liquigas-Cannondale team (and he also happened to win the recent U.S. national road title!); Phinney was an excellent 17th in his first Paris-Roubaix in April (Hincapie finished 43rd); and Van Garderen will be helping his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans defend his Tour title next month, and he has finished the toughest Ardennes classics in each of the past two years.
Van Garderen can also be a strong back-up rider for the time trial should Phinney get injured or sick, while Phinney’s winning time trial at last month’s Giro d’Italia (besides his past world track titles) made him as good if not better candidate for the Olympic TT than the veteran Zabriskie. So the U.S. national team for London is solid in every respect, whatever may be speculated in the media. It will be fascinating to see how they perform at London in what has become one of cycling’s most sought-after prizes.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.
So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?
The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.
The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.
Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.
Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.
At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.
Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.
But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.
Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.
That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.
So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.
Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.
His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.
His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.
Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.
His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.
Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
[Editor's note: Due to an extraordinary amount of travel with little to no down time for posting, we've been a bit quieter than usual the last couple of days. It's why this post is a day late. Thanks for your patience.]
Over recent years, scientific training methods have brought a sort of parity to pro cycling that allows more and more riders to finish races together, even tough ones. As a result, to avoid too many mass finishes, organizers are making race finales ever more difficult. Just look at the two major stage races taking place this week and the number of riders finishing together at the end of difficult days in the saddle.
In Italy, after 10 stages and more than 40 hours of racing at the Giro d’Italia — including three summit finishes in the past four days — twenty-odd riders are still within two minutes of each other at the top of the overall standings. And here in the Amgen Tour of California, after two days and more than 20,000 feet of climbing, some 50 riders sit within a minute of race leader Peter Sagan.
Even hardened race followers felt that the California organizers had made their courses too tough this year, but the rugged climbs they included in Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties the first two days have failed to deliver the desired results. As Garmin-Barracuda team manager Jonathan Vaughters tweeted Monday night after 63 riders sprinted to the line in stage two at the Amgen Tour: “I anticipated a smaller group than that today.”
Over in Europe, the three Giro stages with uphill finishes have seen groups of 27, 25 and 33 battling for the win on the final climb. The only rider who has been able to separate himself (a little) from the group of race leaders is Domenico Pozzovivo — whose solo attack midway up the second-category Colle Molella on Sunday went virtually unopposed by the favorites who, like the Italian media, have marginalized the pocket-sized climber on the modest Colnago-CSF squad as a GC threat.
On Tuesday’s stage 10 finish in Assisi, the organizers made the hardest-possible finish, with the 15-percent grades of the San Damiano wall preceding the 11-percent climb on narrow, stone-paved streets into the heart of the medieval hilltop town. Even that spectacular finale didn’t produce huge time gaps, though the tough finish did its job of producing a new race leader in Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez — with Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal hanging tough in second place.
Sometimes, finishes can be too tough too frequently. The former Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan partly lost his job because he sought out ever-more spectacularly steep finishing climbs—which actually led to a too-tough course and a too predictable result last year. But even the normally conservative promoters of the Tour de France are inserting steeper climbs that they once considered too risky. At the upcoming Tour, race director Christian Prudhomme has decided to include for the first time in race history the Col du Grand-Colombier on stage 10 and the Col de Péguère on stage 14.
The Grand Colombier, just to the east of the French Alps, was used several times at the Tour’s “junior” race, the Tour de l’Avenir, in the 1970s when it was the springboard used by the legendary Soviet amateur Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov in his multiple overall victories. At 17km long and with an average gradient of 7.1 percent, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but it has long stretches of double-digit grades that make this tougher than many climbs in the Alps themselves.
The Péguère “wall” is even steeper, with the final 3.4km of its 9.4km tilting up at almost 14 percent, with pitches of 18 and 16 percent. There was talk of including the Péguère in the Tour route as long ago as the mid-1960s — and it was withdrawn after initial inclusion in 1973 — but the organizers considered this Pyrenean climb too steep and narrow and the road surface unsuitable. It will be the last climb of the day on July 15 and comes 39km from the stage 14 finish in Foix.
And, as last year, the Tour organizers are again spicing up the opening week of their race with three summit finishes. In 2011, those uphill endings saw stage wins for Philippe Gilbert on the Mont des Alouettes (stage one), Cadel Evans on the Mûr de Bretagne (stage four) and Rui Costa at Super-Besse (stage eight).
This year, the opening road stage into the Belgian city of Seraing was originally scheduled as a flat finish for sprinters, but Prudhomme changed it to a 2.5km climb, partly on cobbles, that will suit Gilbert. The next uphill finish comes on stage three at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where five climbs of around 10 percent each precede a 700-meter-long ramp to the line where Sylvain Chavanel won the 2011 French national championship. And stage seven’s finish on La Planche aux Belle Filles is completely new to the Tour, with its 6km climb at 8.5 percent featuring three double-digit sections that are likely to see an intriguing battle between the overall contenders.
The racing in California and Italy this week shows that the parity between riders is a fact of modern pro racing, and that closeness will only become stronger in future years. That’s bad news for sprinters, who will be getting fewer opportunities to unleash their high-speed skills, but good news for the fans, who will delight in more finales like that spectacular arrival in Assisi on Tuesday.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti