Last week, I began this review of 2012 with the first half of my A-to -Z reflections. Here’s the second half, including some amazing performances by three 22-year-old pros, and an almost perfect sets of results by the women’s Eddy Merckx. But let’s start with one remarkable ’cross racer….
N for Nys. It’s being said that Belgian cyclo-cross star Sven Nys, 36, could be his discipline’s greatest-ever athlete. He has already won nine events in the current season to go with his more than 300 career ’cross victories. Though he’s only won a single world title (2005), Nys has taken six World Cup championships (and is headed for a seventh crown), 11 Superprestige titles and eight Belgian national championships in his 15 pro seasons.
O for Olympics. The Games of the 30th Olympiad in London saw cycling become one of the most popular sports, with estimated crowds of a million spectators watching the men’s and women’s road races on separate days, while the track, mountain-bike and BMX events all played to full houses. The home fans were rewarded by the British team winning eight gold medals, while no other country took more than one.
P for Phinney. In 2012 at age 22, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney shed his image as just the son of Olympic-medalist parents, and began building his own pro road palmarès. At the top of the list was his winning the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia and defending the pink jersey until stage 4, while he came close at the London Olympics with fourth place in both the road race and time trial, before winning the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and then taking silver medals at the worlds’ time trials (both team and individual). A sign for Phinney’s future was a promising 15th place in his debut Paris-Roubaix after working hard all day for his team leader, Alessandro Ballan, who placed third.
Q for Quintana. Another 22-year-old, Nairo Quintana, enjoyed a remarkable debut season with Movistar in the UCI WorldTour. This Colombian climber scored half a dozen wins. They included a significant stage victory in the Dauphiné at Morzine after dropping Cadel Evans, Brad Wiggins and the Team Sky armada on the Col de Joux-Plane; and a brilliant solo success in the Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell’Emilia, which finishes on the famed San Luca climb in Bologna.
R for Rodriguez. At age 33, Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team had his best-ever season, ending as No. 1 in the UCI WorldTour rankings for the second time in three years. His season was book-ended by classics victories at the Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia, while he won two stages and finished second overall at the Giro, and won three stages and placed third overall at the Vuelta.
S for Sagan. Many observers have compared Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, still only 22, with the young Eddy Merckx. He won 16 times this year, starting with a stage of the Tour of Oman in February, and going on to win singles stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Three Days of De Panne, five stages at the Tour of California, four stages at the Tour of Switzerland and three stages of the Tour de France (along with the green jersey). Perhaps just as significant was the promise he showed in the spring classics, including fourth place at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and third at the Amstel Gold Race.
T for Tiernan-Locke. Despite riding for a ProContinental team (Endura Racing) and missing several weeks of racing because of injury, Britain’s latest discovery, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, won four European stages races this year: the Mediterranean Tour and Tour du Haut Var in February, the Tour Alsace in July, and the Tour of Britain in September. All this at age 27 after missing three complete seasons because of the Epstein-Barr virus. His reward is a contract with Team Sky for 2013.
U for USADA. What could never be proven by hundreds of anti-doping tests was revealed in the testimonies of a dozen former U.S. Postal Service teammates in an investigation conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: Lance Armstrong used banned drugs and blood-doped for a decade when he was clocking up all those Tour de France wins. The investigation was masterminded by USADA CEO Travis Tygart, an attorney, who homed in on America’s iconic champion after May 2010, when Armstrong’s one-time colleague Floyd Landis began to spill the beans about doping within the former U.S. team.
V for Vos. Still only 25, Dutch phenom Marianne Vos carried all before her in 2012. Not only did she win the world cyclo-cross championship for the fourth consecutive year, but she also won the UCI World Cup for a fourth time (along with three rounds of the premier women’s competition), retained her title in the women’s Giro d’Italia (including five stage wins), and then won gold in a brilliantly exciting edition of the Olympic road race. Vos capped her season with a solo victory in the world road championship—after five consecutive years of silver medals!
W for Wiggins. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, and he did it in the style of five-time champions Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Induráin: by winning the long time trials and defending the yellow jersey in the mountains. But the 32-year-old Brit’s 2012 season wasn’t just about the Tour. He preceded it by becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races in the same year, and he capped it by winning the Olympic time trial to add to the three pursuit golds he won at previous Games and his six world track titles from his pre-road career.
X for Xu. Winner of the Chinese national road championship, the Champion System team’s Xu Gang, 28, raced from February to November in his first season as a ProContinental team rider. Besides winning his national title, Xu finished no less than 11 international stage races: the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Taiwan, Japan, Qinghai Lake, Utah, China I and China II, Beijing, Hainan and Taihu Lake! He cracked the top 20 in Taiwan, Japan and China I.
Y for Yates. British cycling Hall-of-Famer Sean Yates crowned his management career by leading Wiggins and Chris Froome to their unprecedented 1-2 finish at the Tour de France. That added to his own Tour career as a rider when he won a time trial stage in 1988 and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Yates, 52, announced his retirement from cycling in October because of health problems (he has suffered from heart irregularities for several years) and not because of Team Sky’s new zero-tolerance policy (Yates had an A-sample test positive after a Belgian race in 1989, but the B-sample was negative).
Z for Zabel. No, not Erik Zabel, the winner of six Tour de France green jerseys, four editions of Milan-San Remo and three Paris-Tours, but his 18-year-old son Rick Zabel who began his under-23 career this year with the Rabobank Continental squad. His 2012 highlights were winning the German national U23 road title and placing second to Belgian pro Kevin Claeys in the Ronde van Limburg, a 190-kilometer Belgian semi-classic with a 1.2 rating in the UCI Europe Tour.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Many fans couldn’t care less about the first four weeks of the professional cycling season. Part of me can’t blame them. I mean seriously—Argentina? Qatar? Oman? And of these early races, only a few feature terrain that puts the majority of the peloton into the red zone. In most cases, crosswinds and cold weather do more damage than the actual racing does. Even Southern Europe was not immune, as record low temperatures turned most races into leg-warmer contests where the rider able to stay the warmest the longest often found himself on the top step of the podium. You’re forgiven for not caring.
On the other hand, the first weeks of the season offer our first glimpses of new riders and teams, many of whom are eager to impress following seasons that fell short of expectations. These early tests also offer pundits a chance to determine which riders are starting the year in good shape, making them possible contenders for the season’s first major rendezvous in Belgium, France, and Italy.
So whether you weren’t paying attention either by choice or by accident (and before the “real” season begins this Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), here’s a quick rundown of what you missed, packaged together in a little game I like to call Win, Lose, or Draw (no Dom DeLuise required).
Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Win) – Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step has enjoyed a terrific start to the season—one that calls to mind the exploits of HTC-Columbia/High Road. At this point in the season it’s usually one or two riders that have won the bulk of any one team’s race victories; in Omega Pharma’s case, six riders have shared the spoils (Chicchi, Boonen, Fenn, Leipheimer, Ciolek, and Velits), with two more (Martin and Trentin) just missing wins themselves. If the team continues its torrid pace once the “real” racing begins in earnest, they could easily end the season as the year’s top-ranked squad.
Lotto-Belisol (Lose) – Andre Greipel has already won five races for the restructured Belgian squad and Tour-hope Jurgen Van den Broeck looked strong in Qatar; but the team also lost Jurgen Roelandts after a crash in Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under. Roelandts was the team’s best hope for the cobbled classics, an important block of races for any Belgian team—especially one trying to keep up with Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s early season success. Without Roelandts, Greipel might need to ride himself into contention for the flatter classics—Milan-San Remo comes to mind, but Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grote Scheldeprijs might be better bets for the German speedster.
BMC (Draw) – BMC made the biggest splash this past off-season, but they’re winless so far in 2012. That said, with men like Gilbert, Evans, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet on the roster, there’s hardly good reason to worry. This weekend’s Omloop will be our first opportunity to see some of the squad’s biggest names racing au bloc. And with two former winners and several other possible contenders on the roster, don’t count them out.
Tom Boonen (Win) – Omega Pharma’s most successful rider thus far has been Tom Boonen, a welcome sight considering the Belgian’s frustrating past two seasons. Boonen’s sprint speed appears to have returned, but perhaps more importantly, so has his confidence. Here’s a an interesting bit of trivia for those hoping to see Tommeke add another Flanders or Roubaix to his resume: each year that Boonen won the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, he took one of the two cobbled monuments as well.
Southern European Races (Lose) – There was a time when Mallorca, Southern France, and Italy were three of the sport’s most weather-friendly early season locales. But not this year as frigid temperatures and snow forced the abbreviation or cancellation of reventsaces in all three countries. But don’t get your hopes up for an “epic” weekend of racing in Belgium—the forecast calls for dry, sunny conditions. Go figure.
Mark Cavendish (Draw) – Two stage wins in Oman plus a bout of sickness and a crash amount to a draw for the reigning world champ. On the bright side, Cav’s wins indicate that his Team Sky lead-out train is coming along quite nicely.
Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Win) – Easily the season’s biggest surprise has been Endura Racing’s Tiernan-Locke, the winner of both the Tour Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut. The British rider won each event’s “queen” stage and in doing so, the overall titles as well. Thanks to his victories, Tiernan-Locke has apparently attracted the attention of several World Tour squads. Look for him to finish the season in a new uniform.
Greenedge (Lose) – Australia’s Greenedge Cycling team won its first two important goals of the season—the Australian Road Race Championship and the Tour Down Under—but have since fallen flat in their inaugural World Tour season. With so many flat races on the schedule (and shortened ones at that), you have to think that a roster with such an impressive set of speedsters would have produced more results. But let’s be fair: many upstart World Tour squads (especially those created out of thin air) have often struggled to find consistent results during their first seasons (Team Sky and Slipstream come to mind) but have gone on to win several major races.
Alberto Contador (Draw) – For Alberto Contador’s fans, his two-year retroactive suspension counts as a loss. To proponents of a cleaner sport though, it’s a clear win. But at the end of the day, Contador’s suspension and the loss of his titles dating all the way back to the 2010 Tour de France amount to nothing more than a draw. First of all, Contador’s reputation seems to have survived the court of public opinion. Second, he’ll be back and racing in time to win his second Vuelta a Espana—which just about everyone expects him to do easily. Even his sponsor still supports him—a smart move considering he’s still likely to command a tremendous salary in spite of his suspension.
Elia Viviani (Win) – I identified Viviani as one of several young Italian sprinters to watch as part of my Season Preview a few weeks ago. So far, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider has lived-up to my expectations. Viviani’s already won five races, and until the win by his teammate Moreno Moser (yes, he’s Francseco’s nephew) in Sunday’s Trofeo Laigueglia, he was undefeated on home soil. If he manages to take a stage or two in next month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, look for Viviani’s name on the list of contenders for Milan-Sam Remo.
Rabobank (Lose) – Last year, Rabobank had already won nine races by this point in the season. This year, they’ve won nothing. Worse still, Oscar Freire—the man they let go to make room for Mark Renshaw—has already won two races for Katusha. Luckily, Matti Breschel seems to be healed and ready to contend this weekend in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race Rabobank won last year as well. Too bad the winner (Sebastian Langeveld) now rides for someone else (GreenEdge).
Alejandro Valverde (Draw) – Similar to Contador, Valverde’s status depends entirely on your perspective. For many, the Spaniard’s return to racing leaves a black eye on the sport and its ability to fairly mete out justice. For others, it simply marks the return of one of the sport’s most talented and exciting riders, someone capable of challenging Philippe Gilbert in the Ardennes. And while he’s already won two races, he’s still a long way from redemption.
French Youth Movement (Win) – It was also good month for young Frenchman as Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, Saur-Sojasun’s Jerome Coppel, and FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni took wins. While Rolland and Coppel have bright futures as stage racers, Demare (the reigning U23 World Road Race Champion) and Bouhanni give the nation two young sprinters to root for at Paris-Nice.
Saxo Bank (Lose) – We’ll know for sure sometime in March, but if the team’s hearing before the sport’s Licensing Commission on February 27 doesn’t go well, they could find themselves on the outside looking in at the rest of the World Tour. Bjarne Riis has struggled in the past to find sponsors to support his program; a demotion certainly won’t make life any easier.
Share your early season Win, Lose, or Draw contestants below!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The mentor and his apprentice
This past week has been a memorable one for British cyclists. In the space of eight days, they took seven international victories: two in Qatar, two in Spain and three in France. It was the best-ever start to a new racing season by riders from the UK. The two sprint wins by world champ Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Qatar were not totally unexpected; and sprinter Andy Fenn’s two stage wins at the Mallorca Challenge simply confirmed the great talent of Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s neo-pro. But the two solo stage wins and overall victory by Endura Racing’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke at the Tour Méditerranéen shocked everyone.
Well, not quite everyone. Locke’s mentor and onetime coach back in England, Colin Lewis, was calmly awaiting his apprentice to make this big breakthrough. Lewis, 69, who owns the bike shop in southwest England where Locke worked for several years, is one of the savviest and most knowledgeable people in the sport. He’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, with a dry sense of humor and a ready smile.
I first met Lewis on a long training ride over the hills of Brittany in the mid-1960s, when we were both racing with amateur teams and trying to make it to the big leagues. He was already a star in my eyes, having placed seventh overall in his first two-week-long stage race, the Tour of Britain Milk Race, and 25th in the Olympic road race in Tokyo. I was just starting out and had only won a few local races in southeast England before heading to France.
We had a long conversation on that training ride, much of it about the drug culture in French cycling. This was before there were drug tests in the sport, so there was no danger of being caught by anti-doping agencies. The only danger was to your body. Lewis said he was totally against any form of doping and would never race for a European pro team.
The English-born Welshman was good to his word. When he turned pro in 1967, he signed for a British domestic team with a salary only a quarter of what he could have earned in Europe. Even so, he won his national pro road title that first year and was selected to ride the Tour de France for the British national team (the Tour didn’t switch to the current format of trade teams until 1969). Despite having had no experience of European pro racing, and definitely not using drugs, Lewis rode strongly for the three weeks to finish 84th overall. He started the Tour again in 1968, but was eliminated on an early stage to Roubaix.Colin Lewis in 1969
In his eight years as a pro, Lewis was consistently one of Britain’s top-tier riders, winning 38 times, but he rarely raced in Europe. Today, when there are several British teams in the big leagues, and there’s a very different attitude to doping, Lewis would likely be one of the very best in the world. He was a rider who could have won classics and stages of the Tour. And that’s just what he’s hoping for Locke.
On retiring from pro racing in 1975, Lewis became a coach and opened his bike shop in the seaside town of Paignton. He continued to compete in masters-level racing, while coaching younger riders who joined his Mid Devon Cycling Club. Among those who went on to become pros were Jeremy Hunt (now with Team Sky in his 15th pro season) and Yanto Barker (racing with Magnus Bäckstedt’s Team UK Youth).
When Locke began road racing in 2003 at age 18, after a couple of seasons as a mountain biker, he moved from fourth to first category status in just a few months. Seeing the teenager’s talent, Lewis found him a spot on the French amateur team, U.V. Aube, in 2004. Locke did so well there that, only 18 months into his road career, he was selected for the British under-23 team for that year’s road worlds in Verona, Italy. In 2005, he moved to a nationally ranked French team, CC Étupes, and established his credentials immediately by finishing on the podium in all of his first 10 races, including a win at the GP de Rocheville, near Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur.
A couple of months later, his health suddenly deteriorated. Locke returned home and was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus. He quit cycling, and for the next three years attended the University of Bristol, graduating with a degree in product design, while working at Lewis’s bike store each summer. Finally, after graduating in mid-2007 and feeling less fatigued than he had been, Locke began training again — riding the 30km each way from his Plymouth home to the bike shop. He returned to amateur racing four years ago, at age 23, and soon started winning again.
That 2008 season ended early when he was knocked unconscious by a panicked horse during a training ride; but he’d done enough to earn a place with a small British pro team for 2009. His new team’s main sponsor went bankrupt mid-season, so he returned to working at the bike shop while racing for no pay. That’s when John Herety, the former British national coach and now manager of the well-funded Rapha-Condor-Sharp pro team, remembered Locke’s talent from the 2004 worlds and asked him to join his squad in 2010.Lewis on the Col Portillon at the ’67 Tour de France
With Rapha, Locke’s pro career finally started to move. In 2010, he won the toughest stage of Ireland’s Rás Tailteann, taking fifth overall; and last year, with a more international schedule, he placed eighth at the Tour of South Africa, fourth in the Tour of Korea, second in Spain’s Vuelta a León, and then fifth in the Tour of Britain. His highlight at his national tour last September was securing the King of the Mountains title, mainly thanks to instigating and leading a long breakaway on the fifth stage, over the hills of Dartmoor National Park on the roads where he trains.
Like his mentor Lewis, Locke prepares for racing the old-fashioned way. “I don’t train with any power meters or a heart-rate monitor,” he told local cycling photographer Simon Keitch last year. “I’m quite old school in my training. I’m quite good at knowing how to get myself into shape.”
His aggressive riding at the Tour of Britain had ProTeam managers talking, but when Herety transformed the Rapha team into a development squad this past winter, Locke chose to join Endura Racing, another UK-based UCI Continental team, which has a strong schedule of international and domestic racing. He promised to “hit the ground running.” And Locke has done just that. Following a training camp in Mallorca, he headed to the Med Tour last week, planning to use his climbing strength up to the last day’s traditional summit finish on Mont Faron.
That plan was derailed by snow in the south of France, which forced the organizers to reroute three of the four stages, including the first and last ones. This didn’t stop Locke’s plans. His team scouted the finish of the opening stage and thought a short climb 3km from the line could be a good place to attack. Locke did just that, riding a dozen riders off his wheel and gaining enough time to hold off the sprinters to win the stage.
The Europeans said it was a lucky win, but the lean Brit emphasized his true class on Sunday. When overnight snow covered the Faron, Locke adjusted his sights on the lower-elevation summit finish up the Col du Corps de Garde. And he didn’t wait for the final kick to the line; instead, he surprised the Continentals by jumping clear with 10km to go, catching and passing the day’s lone breakaway on the first steep slopes of the final climb, before establishing a 40-second lead. Locke held on to win the stage by 17 seconds over Saxo Bank’s Spanish climber Dani Navarro and Acqua & Sapone’s Italian star Stefano Garzelli — and clinched the overall title.
When asked by a British website last year what he hoped to achieve in 2012, Locke replied, “I’d love to win a UCI stage race … with the prospect of moving on to a ProTour team in the future.” Well, goal one is already achieved, and if he continues to show his strength for Endura Racing, Locke could well join a UCI ProTeam in 2013.
At just under 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds, Locke, 27, has a similar lean build to his cycling hero Michele Bartoli, the Italian who won the Mont Faron stage of the Med Tour at age 27 (in 1997) and took the overall title the following year. Bartoli won multiple classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy — just the type of races that Locke relishes.
And now that his career-interrupted has finally moved into top gear, it won’t be long before Locke gets a chance to emulate Bartoli in the hilly classics. When he does, the apprentice knows that back in a British bike shop, his mentor will still be rooting for him.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson