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.
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Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
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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Is it just me? It felt like the Tour (grand as it always is) was somehow lessened by these Olympics. Riders who might have gone harder in France saved themselves for London. Tom Boonen comes to mind immediately. Even Mark Cavendish, who was always going to take a back seat with Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins in yellow, used the Tour as training for the road race in his home country, rather than going full gas for another green jersey. A further cadre of riders pulled out of the Tour consoling themselves that the Olympics might still define their season, Thor Hushovd (he missed both races in the end) among them.
So what do we think of that? Has the Olympics, the road race and time trial, been worth it? Did you care when Alexandre Vinokourov rode off with the gold medal? Was Wiggins’ ride in the TT a valedictory, a simple victory lap or a true coronation? Did the Olympics turn you on?
I will say that I was tremendously disappointed in the road race. Team GB didn’t execute the plan for Cavendish. In fact, having watched Wiggins and Chris Froome both medal in the time trial, you have to ask if they were even the right guys to have in the road race. Were they saving themselves for their own event at Cav’s expense?
And then watching Vinokourov, one of the enduring faces of the sport’s doping past, cross the line, arms aloft, turned my stomach. Here is a guy who hasn’t won a race all year, but suddenly he has the legs to take a gold medal. When Rigoberto Uran turned to look over his right shoulder I immediately thought, “NO!NO!NO!” And it was over.
On the flip side of the coin, Marianne Vos’ road race win over Lizzie Armitstead was nail-bitingly dramatic, and certainly helped the pro women get some much deserved camera time. Kristin Armstrong’s gold in the TT a few days later was also good. Watching her with her son, on the podium, made me all emotional. And I abhor time trials.
So this week’s Group Ride asks: Was it worth it? Was Olympic cycling (and yes, I know the track events are still in progress) a worthy distraction from our normal program? Did London 2012 lessen the Tour, or was it another marquis event that will bring lasting attention to the sport? My British friends are thinking the latter, but how does this all look from your corner of the globe?
Photo: © Surrey County Council