As the 2013 road cycling season ambles its way towards a conclusion and news tidbits start to dry up it feels like a good time to review the season; and what a season it has been both on and off the bike. Whilst the crashing fall of a certain Mr Armstrong has overawed the majority of the season,the racing and politics of the sport continues to provoke excitement and angst in equal measure.
Two new Grand Tour winners, two new classic winners, some biblical weather and a change in the top tier of the sport all point to that fact that it wasn’t a bad year after all!
Grand Tour Deja-Vu?
American bike rider defies all the odds to win one of cycling’s biggest races for the first time. No we haven’t been transported back to the drug riddled late 1990’s; its Christopher Horner (at 41 – the oldest Grand Tour winner ever) triumphing in the Vuelta a Espana. The impossibly gaunt and skinny rider from Oregon scrawled yet another chapter in the sports chaotic relationship with drugs and rumour.
Climbing for impossibly extended moments out of the saddle, the American arguably rode the perfect race to despatch Vincenzo Nibali. Herein lies perhaps the most important motif of that Vuelta – it remains a stiff task to be competitive in more than one grand tour during the year. Ultimately this has to be a positive thing for the sustainability of the sport.
That brings us to a certain Mr Nibbles. Safely despatching his opponents despite some biblical weather and some shortened stages – he certainly has to be classed as one of the top 3 grand tour riders at present. Admittedly a tentative Wiggins, an ageing Evans, an off colour Hesjedal and an improving Uran didn’t provide much of a challenge.
Again the Tour de France was strangled by a Sky armada, albeit in a less comprehensive fashion than 12 months previously. A precession from stage 8 for Mr Froome wouldn’t have been so enjoyable if it wasn’t for the 100th Tour which included a double ascension of Alpe D’Huez, Mount Ventoux and a dusk finish in Paris. Marcel Kittel also emerged as the top sprinter we all knew he would be, throwing down a challenge to Monseiur Cavendish. He’s certainly come a long way in a very short time since finishing third at the 2010 World Time Trial championship! Oh and who can forget the Australian bus incident!
Dan Martin powers away from an unlikely opponent
An Irish Panda
Let’s hope MTN Quebeka’s win at Milan San Remo inspires a generation (to pinch a well-known phrase) of African cyclists. Yet, history may well remember the ice crusted helmets, blue faces, mid stage bus ride and a tottering Sky rider instead.
Whilst Fabian Cancellara doubled up at Roubaix and Flanders and Rodriguez did the double at Il Lombardia, Dan Martin ensured Irish eyes were smiling again when triumphing at thoroughly enjoyable edition of Liege Bastogne Liege with the current fall guy of cycling Hesjedal teeing his Garmin teammate to perfection.
With Messers Boonen and Cancellara nearing the epoch of their careers and the timely proliferation of a number of new classic stars, 2014 may well see a new paradigm in one day races. Certainly, Zdenk Stybar can count himself extremely unlucky this year.
Cookson comes to the fore
Arguably the most important moment of the year came when the defiant Pat McQuaid was finally wrestled from his position of UCI president by Brian Cookson. Only time will tell whether the much publicised change Cookson has promised comes to fruition. With calendar alterations a foot for 2015, next year this maybe the last season we enjoy procycling in its current format.
Below are my rider and race or stage of the year. Who or what is yours?
My rider of the Year – Joaquim Rodriguez
Race of the year – Stage 6 of Tirreno Adriatico
Arguably the most spectacular and visually stimulating of the three Grand Tours the 96th edition of the Giro d’Italia has been described as a hybrid route which transcends the boundaries between a wholly climbers race and a TT specialist’s. Last year’s Giro was perhaps the most stimulating of all Grand Tours with a surprise but worthy winner in Ryder Hesjedal and this year’s looks to emulate that with a dramatic race from Naples to Brescia over 3405 kilometres.
The stellar cast of riders including last year’s Maglia Rosa, Tour winner Sir Bradley Wiggins, recent Giro Del Trentino victor Vincenzo Nibali and a host of other contenders for the General Classification including Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso(!), Michele Scarponi, Samuel Sanchez and Robert Gesink certainly whets the appetite for a fine race to Brescia on the 27th of May. This coupled with sprinters Mark Cavendish, Nacer Bouhanni, Matthew Goss, Sacha Modolo and Roberto Ferrari ensures that this will be a delight of a race from start to finish.
The ebb and flow of a stage race is perhaps no more in evidence than at the Giro. This coupled with the fantastic landscape theatre in which it is played out in, ensures that it is a delight to view. The stage profiles suggest the route builds through the first two weeks (as any good Grand Tour should) to the final few outrageous mountain stages over the Passo Gavia, the Stelvio and the Passo Giau. Stages 4, 7 and 9 are the ones to definitely tune in for early on the race with a nice mix of terrain to suit both puncheurs and overall contenders keen to steal an early march on their opponents. Stage 7 to Pescara and its important port and marina is sure to excite typical breakaway specialists but the terrain could promote a sprint at a push and is likely to stir John Degenkolb’s Argos Shimano and Nacer Bouhanni’s FDJ team into action.
The route of the 2013 Giro
The key aspect of the majority of the mountain stages, back loaded into the second and third weekend, is their relatively short length. Take for example Stage 15, Sunday 19th May where the race heads over the Mont Ceris and then the Telegraphe before the final, tougher ascent to the Col Du Galibier the opposite side to Andy Schleck’s 60km solo escape to win Stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France; a stage which is only 149km long and will undoubtedly be raced rapidly from the off. By the start of stage 20 we may well already know whether Bradley Wiggins has coped with the steeper Italian ascents in comparison to the long steady climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, and perhaps more importantly whether Team Sky’s mass on the front riding has worked to the extent that it has done in the past. So, as the road rises to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo a final nail may have been hammered into Wiggins’ coffin by messers Nibali, Betancur, Pozzovivo and Sanchez.
To finish; some (ill-informed and widely speculative) predictions. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mauro Santambrogio going well in the GC, if only for a top 5 or top 10. Moving to Vini Fantini from BMC at the end of 2012 has reaped its rewards for the 28 year old Italian, with 7th at Tirreno Adriatico and 2nd at the Giro Del Trentino . Certainly his team isn’t as strong as the other overall favourites, his Grand Tour form isn’t spectacular, and I’m not convinced by his time trailing capabilities (76th and 54th in his two ITT’s this year), but the Giro more often than not throws up a surprise contender.
The changing of the GC guard is evident in the fact that old powers like Ivan Basso, Cadel Evans and Michele Scarponi aren’t getting any younger and in the early to mid stage of the decent of their careers. The nearly man Robert Gesink could go close if on top form and he avoids crashes and if not him or Santambrogio then certainly Benat Intxausti looks well placed for a Top 10 finish. Finishing 10th last year at the incredibly difficult Vuelta, perhaps marked a breakthrough for the 27th year old. Whether he will ride for JJ Cobo, the Vuelta winner of 2011 remains to be seen but certainly his form has been building nicely since an 8th in the overall at the Tour of the Basque Country and 4th at the Klasika Primavera de Amorebieta. He can time trial too, which could help limit his losses in the mountains.
Meanwhile, Wiggins’ form, although not as spectacular as last season, certainly looks solid with an ill-timed mechanical arguably the only difference between himself and Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro Del Trentino. He also looked comfortable on the steeper climbs that epitomize Trentino and his time trialing will have undoubtedly remained flawless. Ryder Hesjedal looked mean and lean in Liege Bastogne Liege although his prevalence as an overall contender opposed to last year could be his undoing.
As ever there will be Italians who emerge into the spotlight of the wild Tifosi as Matteo Rabottini did last year so spectacularly. Stefano Pirazzi is sure to be one to watch for attacking in the mountains along with the ever excitable Vacansoleil, the wonderfully entitled Vini Fantini and the other Pro Continental outfits of Team Colombia, Androni-Venezuela and Bardini Vavole – CSF Inox, who are sure to animate things from the off.
My Giro d’Italia Top 5:-
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Bradley Wiggins
- Ryder Hesjedal
- Robert Gesink
- Mauro Santambrogio
Stage Win – Stefano Pirazzi
White Jersey – Wilco Kelderman
Fingers crossed for a passionate, exciting and unpredictable Giro!