The 2012 season has seen cycling attain some remarkable landmarks, including the first Canadian racer to win the Giro d’Italia, the first Brit to win the Tour de France, and the biggest-ever crowds to watch an Olympic road race. The year has also seen the sport dragged through its most damaging doping scandal in the ongoing USADA case against Lance Armstrong and his longtime team manager and business partner Johan Bruyneel. But with pro cycling now emerging as one of the cleanest sports in the world, there are many more feel-good stories to report than bad-news yarns. I’ve divided my A to Z review of a momentous season into two parts, starting this week from Armstrong to Magni.
A is for Armstrong. That’s the one whose first name is Kristin. The 39-year-old American came back from starting a family to brilliantly defend her Olympic women’s time trial gold medal at the London Games, defeating reigning world champion Judith Arndt by 15 seconds in the 29-kilometer event.
B for Boonen. Belgium’s perennial road star, Tom Boonen, returned to his very best form to ace four of the cobbled spring classics: Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Later in the year he won the Belgian national road championship, took the first edition of the two-day World Ports Classic, won the semi-classic Paris-Brussels, and helped his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team win gold in the inaugural world team time trial championship for pro squads.
C for Contador. Spanish fans (and his Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis) were ecstatic when Alberto Contador returned from his much-delayed Clenbuterol-positive suspension to win the Vuelta a España for a second time. Whatever others think about his doping ban, the 29-year-old Spaniard earned the Vuelta win with an audacious solo move far from the finish of stage 17 between Santander and Fuente Dé, to dispossess national rival Joaquin Rodriguez from the leader’s red jersey.
D for Dombrowski. Only two years ago, Joe Dombrowski was a skinny teenager from Virginia who was given the chance to try out with the U.S. development team, Trek-Livestrong, by its director Axel Merckx. Today, he’s about to enter the UCI WorldTour with Team Sky after an amazing under-23 season with Bontrager-Livestrong that saw Dombrowski use his climbing skills to win two mountain stages and the overall title of Italy’s GiroBio; and take top-10 finishes at the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. Tomorrow: the world.
E for Erythropoietin. Just when we thought we’d maybe heard the last of EPO in cycling, this blood-boosting drug again hit the headlines in 2012. And not just from former U.S. Postal Service team riders in their testimonies given in the USADA investigation (see “U for USADA”). Among those foolish enough to use and test positive for EPO were a wide range of athletes, including Tour of Turkey “winner” Ivailo Gabrovski of Bulgaria; French domestique Steve Houanard of the AG2R team; South African veteran David George, a U.S. Postal team rider 12 years ago; and two Gran Fondo New York prize winners, American David Anthony and Italian Gabriele Guarini.
F for Froome. If you’d told Chris Froome 15 months ago that by the end of 2012 he’d finish second at the Tour de France (and win a mountain stage), place second and fourth at the Vuelta a España, come fourth at the Dauphiné, and win a bronze medal in the London Olympics time trial, he’d have said, “You must be joking.” But that’s what this Team Sky rider has just accomplished. Not bad for a bookish 27-year-old born in Kenya and raised in South Africa who now races for Great Britain.
G for Gerrans. The Australian owners of the brand-new Orica-GreenEdge team could barely believe their luck when Simon Gerrans began their tenure by winning the year’s first two races: the Aussie national title and the Tour Down Under. And it only got better, with Gerrans taking his first monument, Milan-San Remo, in March; placing second at the Clasica San Sebastian in August; and winning the GP de Québec in September.
H for Hesjedal. Ever since he was winning top mountain bike races in his early-20s (he narrowly lost the 2003 world cross-country championship to Filip Meirhaeghe, who would later test positive for EPO), Ryder Hesjedal knew he had exceptional talent for cycling. After years of riding tirelessly for other team leaders, he blossomed at Team Slipstream with sixth overall at the 2010 Tour de France, and this year showed all his exceptional ability, climbing talent and grit to become the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia. He did it with great consistency: Garmin won the early team time trial at Verona; Hesjedal was heroic on the summit finishes at Rocca di Cambio, Cervinia, Cortina, Alpe di Pampeago and the Passo di Stelvio, and he crowned his victory over Joaquim Rodriguez in the final-stage time trial though the streets of Milan.
I for Iglinskiy. For most of his nine years as a pro racer, Maxim Iglinskiy has worked as a domestique for team leader and fellow Kazakh, Alexander Vinokourov, while still winning the occasional race. This spring, he emerged from the Astana veteran’s shadows by placing second to Fabian Cancellara at Italy’s Strade Bianche classic (a race he won in 2010), and then grinding out a late victory over Vincenzo Nibali at the last of the spring classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
J for Jensy. Every bike-racing fan loves the aggressive riding of German veteran Jens “Jensy” Voigt, 40, who out-did himself in 2012 with nine months of solid racing from January to September for RadioShack-Nissan. The highlights included top-three stage finishes at Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and Tour de France—and then a magnificent stage victory on the Aspen-Beaver Creek stage of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, riding alone for 150 kilometers in rain and wind over Independence Pass and Battle Mountain.
K for Kulhavy. He wasn’t the favorite to win gold in the men’s cross-country at the London Olympics, but Czech mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavy, 27, took one of the most exciting wins off-road racing has seen in a sprint finish with Swiss rival Nino Schurter. Kulhavy, the 2011 world champion, hadn’t won a major race all year before the Olympics. He went on to win the biggest French mountain-bike race, the marathon Roc d’Azur, ahead of Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser—and there’s talk that Kulhavy may convert to road racing in future seasons.
L for Lance. Some 18 months after his final bike race, Lance Armstrong was no longer a seven-time Tour de France winner, but merely a former world and U.S. road champion, the first American to win European classics (Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian), along with a host of North American victories, after USADA (see “U is for USADA”) stripped him of all his post-cancer results because of doping.
M for Magni. Italian legend Fiorenzo Magni died in October at age 91. Known as the Lion of Flanders for his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders (1949, ’50 and ’51), he also won three editions of the Giro d’Italia (1948, ’51 and ’55) and three Italian road titles. They were amazing accomplishments in an era when Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi were also at their zenith. An accomplished businessman until his death, Magni is also remembered for bringing the first non-cycling sponsor to the sport: Nivea began as his team’s title sponsor in 1954.
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Boonen image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Contador 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.
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